Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti has been in the business for a long time. During that time, he’s made a lot of friends and has played with just about anybody who’s anybody. But it was his collaborations with pop icon Sting that catapulted his career from sideman to the smooth jazz star that he is today.
Botti talks with me about that rise and his CD and DVD, “Chris Botti in Boston,” which features singers like American Idol Katharine McPhee, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, rocker John Mayer, and of course, Sting.
Q. I read that the sound you are able to make while playing trumpet is the thing you’re most proud of. You described your sound as “dark.” How did you find your tone? When did you figure out that you had a certain sound?
A. Oh, I think it’s been a kind of a natural progression just from years and years of practice. I don’t think you actually ever find it. I think you’re always trying to achieve a more polished, beautiful, round trumpet sound all the time. Since I was a kid I’ve been trying to do that. So it didn’t just happen overnight at all. It’s been a long journey and something that I’ve dedicated my whole life to, basically.
Q. Does a trumpet player decide they want to have a dark tone or a bright tone?
A. No. I mean I think it’s very like being a baseball pitcher. I think every baseball pitcher would love to paint the outside corner at 95 miles an hour. But it’s just not like that. You just physically can’t do it all the time, and so with the trumpet it’s very similar. Your biggest enemy is the trumpet. Everyone would love to have that kind of dark, beautiful trumpet sound because it’s more rare than getting a bright, brittle trumpet sound.
Q. Was there a point when you decided that you wanted to concentrate on ballads and have ballads be your specialty?
A. Well, I think that my whole life I recognized that the great trumpet players primarily did ballads. Those are the kind of records that people relate to. In other words, when you went and saw Miles Davis play live, he would play with all the energy and virtuosity that you would want to hear from an instrumentalist. But when he made records — the records that really crossed over for him — “Sketches of Spain” and “Kind of Blue,” they were primarily mood albums. That’s the same with so many different great trumpet players, even a guy like Wynton Marsalis. His biggest albums were him playing ballads, “Hot House Flowers” and those type of records. But when you go see somebody play live, that’s a different thing. So when I play live it’s much, much more energetic than the records because we want it to be an entertaining, fun night and also filled with the roller-coaster of energy that a live show can give you.
Q. So even back when you were 10 years old, you had this idea of playing essentially ballads?
A. Sure. I fell in love with Miles Davis’s playing and the trademark of his playing is the way that he played ballads. That really defined his style, at least the style that broke through and I think that that really resonated with me.
Q. As a session player in your early days you worked with [top pop music producers] Hugh Padgham and Arif Mardin?
A. I only worked with Hugh once but Arif many, many times. A dozen or something like that. Seeing one of the great legendary producers work on that level was an insight on how to make records. A lot of jazz musicians unfortunately think that when they play in a club that that translates — everyone’s going crazy and clapping and stuff like that — that that’s going to translate into good record making. They always fall short. I think my years of being around great record makers in popular music, or classical music or jazz music, really gave me insight on how to make good records. Microphone placements, what kind of reverb to use, where to record, where to set the artists up, all that sort of stuff I learned from being around the best in the business.
Q. You’ve done session work with Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. How did that come about?
A. Well, I’ve done sessions with everyone. You name it – I mean every single person on the planet that’s famous I’ve probably worked with them. Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin was like my first album credential. That was so long ago. I just had the opportunity. They weren’t even there in the studio. But I’ve worked with everyone. I was in everyone’s band…Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, you name it. Stevie Wonder, blah blah blah blah blah…on and on and on. I’ve just been around a long time and paid my dues…I have the great opportunity of having all these big stars come and guest on my DVDs and my albums and it’s a very big thrill.
Q. But besides placement of microphones and how to make a record that sounds good, what are some of the things you’ve learned from the people you’ve worked with?
A. Well, as far as singers, you learn how to relate to a popular audience. The reason I believe jazz doesn’t ever cross over with regularity is because they either do one of two things. The music’s super obscure or obtuse and the audience has no idea what to grab onto. Then when the jazz musician tries to make an album that’s popular they dumb the music down. I’m not a fan of either one of those. By being around so many popular singers like a guy like Sting, and seeing him firsthand night after night for years and being on stage with him and making music, you start to see how you can play sophisticated music but still make it accessible to the first two rows as well as 15,000 people. That’s something that you learn through osmosis. Nobody can teach you that or tell you that. You’ve got to see it and be around it and those kinds of artists.
Q. Was there a moment, maybe when you were on tour with Sting, when you said, “Ah ha, look at how he’s doing that!” — something that really stuck out to you?
A. Every night, being around him and seeing not only what goes on on the stage but off the stage, the discipline, like how to run a band on the road. So many artists just don’t have an appetite for being on the road. Sting is a guy that doesn’t need to be on the road. He’s rich enough to do whatever he wants, yet he loves being out there. He loves the day-to-day routine of getting up and doing yoga and practicing his instrument and then going to the gig. All these little things add up. The devil is in the details of being an artist that has an appetite for being out there reaching a fan base. I would say that every day — not just one day — I learned something from being around him.
Q. What’s the difference between working with a seasoned, experienced artist like Sting and a newer one like John Mayer or Katharine McPhee?
A. Well, Katharine came to our Boston show and sang a jazz standard and did such a fantastic thing. She’s an artist, obviously, that’s just starting out on her journey and she’s also a fantastic actress as well. I think her career is obviously very, very bright. John Mayer is a guy that I would put in the same sort of crossover league as Sting was in the 80s. In other words, John Mayer can sing jazz. John Mayer is a rock star. John Mayer is a popular paparazzi kind of face as well, and so there’re all these intersections of popularity that John Mayer has. That’s kind of lost today. I don’t find a lot of young artists having the versatility that John Mayer does. I think that’s really defined him as being an artist that’s going to have huge longevity.
Q. There are some interesting artists on your new album. You have Steven Tyler singing “Smile.” How was that arranged?
A. Well, he did it on my album “To Love Again” originally and I called him. He’s obviously from Boston and I asked him if he’d participate in doing this special and he was so gracious in saying yes. He’s just got such a personality and such a voice and to hear him way out of his normal kind of music that you associate with him, with Aerosmith. It was very touching that night. He’s obviously a legendary voice.
Q. What’s the key to a good collaboration?
A. Probably friendship. I mean all the artists that performed in Boston are my friends. They’re not just people that I called up because they’re big stars. I’ve known them socially and I think that shows on the DVD and how everyone’s just kind of loose and we’re all having fun.