By Mike Zielinski
(Editor’s Note: At end of this profile, Susan Pena offers update from Chris Botti on how COVID impacted his live.)
Trumpeter Chris Botti is a road warrior, as durable as blue steel, and a permanent fixture on center stage.
He will be performing in the Opening Night Celebration of the 30th anniversary Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest on Friday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m. in the Santander Performing Arts Center. He will bring tenor saxophonist Andy Snitzer along as a special guest.
Botti has been on the road for 250-plus days a year, for years. Performing worldwide for enthusiastic audiences, he has found a form of creative expression that begins in jazz and expands beyond the limits of any single genre.
Botti draws a constant draft of energy from the love of his craft. His whole life is geared toward performing on stage, where he spends the happiest moments of his life. To experience those moments, he has a singular focus that borders on tunnel vision.
“My whole day, my practicing, my physical routine, everything I do is all geared trying to ensure that I have my best shot at longevity on the trumpet and longevity walking on stage in front of people,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s really my driving force in my life and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be able to do that.
“You have to practice a lot. Perhaps three, four, five hours a day. That part is intense. When you get older there are a myriad of things that can go against you with a trumpet. It can be a hernia or back issues or shoulder inflammation and that can really trip you out and can really sideline your career.
“It’s not just the lip. The lip is the obvious thing. Unlike a lot of trumpet players, I don’t use lip balm or Vaseline, because it ruins the sensitivity between you and your mouthpiece.
“I look at someone like Doc Severinsen (the gifted trumpeter and former bandleader of Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), who is 92 and he still looks the same and has an incredible exercise regimen, and he plays and still tours. I just look at that and I say man, that is the way to age gracefully and put in the right place what the trumpet means to him.
“What the trumpet has done for me, what I have gotten from it both emotionally and professionally, is something I can never replace. So I want to water the plant, so to speak.”
To do that, he has made a “dramatic change” in his life, including a healthy diet and working out, resulting in his losing 40 pounds.
“I’m super into it,” said Botti, who is 58. “I’m the old guy that lives at the gym for three hours a day. I have the time. I have the discipline and I have the dedication. So what’s my excuse? . . . When I’m on the road, I seek out a world-class gym and hire someone to train me.”
Botti is changing his life in other ways, as well. He used to say that six suits and a trumpet were all he really needed. He wasn’t joking.
“Over the last 17 years I’ve lived 12 of those years with no mailing address,” he said. “I own no possessions. I have one really big suitcase and a carry-on bag. When I get tired of a suit or grow out of it, I just get another one. Same with jeans. I checked into this hotel in Soho five-and-a-half years ago. . . But I just finally bought a brand-new apartment in Manhattan that I’ll move into in March or April.
“That is my commitment to the back nine of my life. I am going to do a complete about-face and have possessions. . . It will have my stamp on it, and it will be my home. I’m kind of excited about it.”
To hear Botti tell it, playing the trumpet is an advantage, because it means a less-cluttered road on the way to the top.
“Trumpet players are successful in a lot of ways because there are not a lot of trumpet players,” he said. “Most kids want to sing or play rock guitar or play drums or play the piano, but the learning curve on the trumpet is so much more difficult than the saxophone or those other instruments that you just weed it out by the sheer dauntingness of the actual instrument.
“Kids get frustrated and quit. But if you stick with the trumpet, what happens over time is you realize that your lane is open for business. It was a karmic move by me to play an instrument that doesn’t have a lot of traffic on it. The brass instruments are much more difficult than the reed instruments, just because of the way you produce the sound.”
Since the release of his 2004 critically acclaimed CD, When I Fall In Love, Chris Botti has become the top-selling American instrumental artist, with more than 4 million albums sold.
His success has crossed over to audiences usually reserved for pop music, and his ongoing association with PBS has led to four No. 1 jazz albums, as well as multiple Gold, Platinum and Grammy Awards. His 2012 album, Impressions, won the Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental.
Over the past three decades, Botti has recorded and performed with the legendary artists, including Sting, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Bublé, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, John Mayer, Andrea Bocelli, Joshua Bell, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, and even Frank Sinatra.
He has also performed with many of the finest symphonies and at some of the world’s most prestigious venues from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
Botti has thoroughly established himself as one of the important, innovative figures of the contemporary music world, but this achievement took time.
“I didn’t have real success until I was 43, 44,” he said. “On the way up I saw successful people who didn’t pay attention to the grassroots of the audience or their career. . . I’ve seen a lot of people torpedo their careers by their own actions.
“My job, when I go play a gig, is to not only make the audience happy but to make the promoter happy. The promoter is the one who is deciding. If you’re not on it, stuff over time will just decay. I want my career and my band to be employed. So I take care of business.”
Botti attributes much of his success to hard work and serendipity.
“There are so many, many talented people in music, and the difference is a couple of people opening doors for you and a couple strokes of really good luck,” he said. “Stars aligning. Right place, right time. All those clichés. But man is it true.
“I just look at my life, and if I had made the decision to have a family in my 30s, or not made the decision to go on Columbia Records 18 years ago because they opened so many doors for me, or not made the decision to join Sting’s band in 1999, who ultimately opened all the doors. . . .
“You define your life by your priorities, and I made certain things my priority that certainly have helped me so much. There are a zillion people if put in the right place would have done the same thing. Do I feel every moment every day grateful? Absolutely.”
“I worked together a couple times with Sting. But his very first pitch to me was at the world-famous Dorchester Hotel in London in a very posh bar there. At the time I was signed to Verve Records. At the time I had had three No. 1 hits on smooth jazz radio. My career was happening.
“He said to me, ‘Chris, if you leave your career for a few years, I guarantee you I will break the sound of your trumpet to the world and most of those people won’t be jazz fans.’
“To show you what kind of hiccup it started, Verve dropped me because they thought I wasn’t caring enough about my career. In hindsight, it was tenfold the opposite. In their defense, they thought I would just wither away as a sideman.
“What happened over the years still to this day is that Sting and I became as close as you can come to being with someone. . . It was what happened after I left that tour in 2002 that cultivated the space for me to launch my career.
“Sting got me to be the opening act on his world tour in 2004. . . We played a bunch of shows in New York at the Beacon Theatre, and there was someone in the audience who thought, ‘oh my God, my friend Oprah would love this guy.’ Two weeks later, we were on the Oprah Winfrey show.
“All my PBS specials Sting has been on. When you have Sting on your show, it’s easier to get someone like Josh Groban or Yo-Yo Ma. I can never, ever repay what Sting has done for me.”
Before that, Paul Simon was at the launch pad.
“Paul Simon was the first nod that I got from someone,” Botti says. “I was 28 when I joined his band. I stood on that stage for two years next to (saxophonist) Michael Brecker with Steve Gadd playing drums. That was some heavy company to be around.
“I learned so much from Paul, who respects and reveres side musicians. Sinatra valued that. He had Buddy Rich and Count Basie in his band. . . Paul always wanted the best behind him. He let people shine at certain points. I learned that from Paul and Sting.
“Sting used to say all the time, ‘The brighter the people behind me shine, the better light I’m in.’”
Not surprisingly, Botti surrounds himself with some of the best musicians in the music industry, proving himself a gracious bandleader by spotlighting every member of his band.
When Botti expanded from strictly playing smooth jazz to spanning genres, then-Columbia Records president Don Ienner also became important to his career.
“The stars lined up for me with Don Ienner,” Botti said. “I didn’t make a conscious decision to transition from smooth jazz with my albums of songbooks. I didn’t view it as a transition. Having a record company like Columbia helped. Don Ienner said, ‘Don’t worry about radio formats. Just make a record you want to hear.’
“When you can put together a record that makes a statement of who you are, you are giving yourself an honest shot at appealing to an audience.”
Besides his extraordinary solo career, Botti has been a superlative A-list pop accompanist for years. These collaborations are all based on sharing a love of the same kinds of music, he said.
“Someone like (Andrea) Bocelli or Yo-Yo Ma or Streisand or Sting, I know we value the same things … a lyrical kind of music, a melodic kind of music, a sophisticated kind of music, an adult kind of music,” he said.
“There is an Italian phrase, bel canto. It means sing lyrically through your horn. I like that kind of music. That’s why I don’t have to prep for Streisand or Bocelli or Groban because we hold that bel canto, that lyricism, dear.
“It’s how the music frames the trumpet, which is equivalent of the voice in pop music. I try to frame the trumpet in a very lyrical, voice-like fashion. The shape of the melodies I write are very lyrical, not as angular as in other types of music. I try to give them a vocal quality, though I don’t sing myself. So the trumpet is my outlet.
“On an album, you have to bring to the audience something that is beautiful. But when you play live, we have to show chops and muscular tendencies.”
Speaking of albums, Botti, who hasn’t released one since Impressions in 2012, finally will be doing another.
“What happened is that the record business is basically over,” he explains. “I was watching that. I just signed finally with Blue Note Records, the place to be for jazz artists. I will have a new record out this year, either in the summer or fall.”
Update, April 30, 2021
By Susan L. Peña
When Chris Botti talked with Mike Zielinski in early 2020, no one could have predicted how everything would change in a few weeks.
Having lived at the Mercer Hotel in Soho, New York City, for five years—relishing the buzzy atmosphere of the hotel’s lobby, where guests included famous actors, musicians, and other celebrities—Bottie was ready to move into his first home, an apartment in Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan.
“I moved in on the first day of the Covid lockdown,” he said. “The next day, the hotel staff was fired. I walked outside my apartment, and everything was closed—the gym, the pool—and I couldn’t get deliveries or have guests. It was like ‘The Shining’ that whole year. It was pretty surreal.”
In one day, the bustling Hudson Yards, and all of the rest of the city, became a ghost town. All of his plans—concert touring, recording a new album—had to be scrapped.
“Last year, I worked out and practiced, worked out and practiced,” Botti said. “I made a promise to myself not to do anything on Zoom until I go back to work. This is the first interview I’ve given since before Covid.”
He shelved the album, because “I want to do it in the studio with other people,” he said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen with that. It will become apparent when I get back to hanging out with my band.”
His first performance will be on June 19 in Central Park; after that he will be back on tour, visiting Poland, Ukraine, Asia, as well as many venues in the United States.
He said that while New York is “coming back a little bit,” he is distressed by the loss of livelihoods in the hotel and music worlds, where Covid has taken one of its largest tolls.
“Young musicians need a scene,” Botti said. “That’s where they learn everything; it’s so important to their development. You can’t work alone, or online. I really hope donors will go back to supporting their local symphonies and other arts groups.”