For jazz, pop, and even classical music fans, Chris Botti is the king of crossover appeal.
The trumpet-playing Oregon native earns kudos from jazz critics for his virtuosity and his rich, distinctive tones, but it’s the familiarity of Botti’s romantic melodies and the accessibility of his arrangements that appeals to most fans.
Botti is in the midst of a tour in support of his latest album, the Grammy Award-winning “Impressions.” He plays Wilmington’s Grand Opera House this Friday, March 1. Tickets for the 8 p.m. show range from $48 to $67, and are available here. Call (800) 37-GRAND for more information.
Botti’s session work with artists like Paul Simon, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin broadened his familiarity and appeal to pop audiences, while his cinematic good looks and Oprah’s stamp of approval helped shore up a large contingent of female fans.
But Botti is not simply a contemporary version of Kenny G.
“I think there’s a huge appetite for jazz-influenced music which is melodic, accessible and reins it in, but doesn’t dumb it down at all,” the 50-year-old Botti said in a 2008 interview for the Associated Press.
Take Botti’s “Impressions” album, for example. The songs on “Impressions” are drawn from an eclectic group of songwriters ranging from classical composer Frederic Chopin, to George Gershwin, to Randy Newman, to R. Kelly. Guests on the album include country star Vince Gill, jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock, former Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, vocalist Andrea Bocelli, and violinist Caroline Campbell.
While Botti is still considered primarily a jazz artist, it’s indicative of Botti’s crossover appeal that “Impressions” was nominated for and won this year’s Grammy Award for “Best Pop Instrumental Album.”
“I think in your mind, you want to have an approach that threads the sound together, even if it’s a very loose thread,” Botti explained in an exclusive telephone interview from 2009. “I mean, you just want to have something that you can hang your thoughts on.”
Botti explained that while growing up, he admired jazz soloists who had crossed over into the rock world like David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Michael Brecker and Richard Tee. Through his work as a session musician, Botti not only had the opportunity to play with a number of music legends, he also gained valuable studio production experience.
Botti released his first solo album, “First Wish,” in 1995 at the age of 33. At the time, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis had burst upon the scene with an album of standards, but Botti knew he had to chart his own course.
“That atmospheric quality is what I really loved about jazz,” he says. “On my earlier CDs I tried to marry that feel to the textures and melodies you might hear on a record by Peter Gabriel or Bryan Ferry.”
Ask Chris Botti to name the person who has had the biggest influence on his life besides his parents, and he won’t hesitate to answer.
“Sting,” he says. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Sting hired Botti as the featured soloist on his 1999-2001 "Brand New Day Tour." The last performance of the tour occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. The date is memorable to Botti for more than the obvious reason. After the show, Sting did Botti the biggest favor of his career. He fired him.
“Actually, he asked me to leave the band, and to become the opening act on his tour in the same breath,” Botti says. Shortly thereafter, a week of shows were booked at New York’s Beacon Theatre.
“I was opening for Sting,” Botti says. “At one of the shows there was some guy in the audience who listened to the show, then went out, bought my album, and sent it to Oprah.”
Oprah liked what she heard, and invited Botti to be a featured guest on her show. The appearance helped jump-start Botti’s career.
“Sting’s the guy that’s responsible for breaking the sound of my trumpet to the world,” says Botti. “All my roads lead back to Sting’s involvement in my career.”
In the years since, Botti has stayed extremely busy. He’s released 10 studio albums, two live albums, and several concert DVD’s. He’s produced and/or guest-starred on numerous albums. He was the leader of the house band on "The Caroline Rhea Show" from 2002 to 2003, and he hosted a weekly radio show called "Chill with Chris Botti." He even did a brief acting stint on the daytime drama, "One Life To Live."
While his current worldwide tour has dates scheduled into October, Botti is always looking ahead to his next recording project.
“One of the great things about being successful is the ability to widen your palate and work with orchestras and great arrangers that are very flattering to the trumpet,” he says. “That ability to make those kind of more classy records as far as the ingredients used — the players, the studios and the arrangers — is something that I don’t want to lose. The key is figuring out what’s the theme, what’s the vibe, what’s the main thread to the album.”