Chris Botti: Making it look effortless 

Trumpeter Chris Botti's first PBS pledge-drive special, Chris Botti Live: With Orchestra and Special Guests (2006), helped raise somewhere in the high six-figure range for public broadcasting stations across the country. And when someone performs that well, he deserves an encore.

This time, it's Chris Botti in Boston, a concert featuring the former Indiana University student (he left school to join Frank Sinatra's band in 1984) performing an evening of standards and smooth jazz with Sting, Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, Josh Groban, Katharine McPhee, the Boston Pops and others.

Botti will be in Indianapolis on Wednesday to promote the special on WFYI, where his first show aired three times and raised double the usual amount of pledges. If he's anywhere close to as interesting on TV as he was during our phone conversation, you'll want to be watching.

NUVO: Weren't your parents worried that playing the trumpet would push in your front teeth?

Botti: They tried to make me get braces when I was a kid. My parents said no, you don't have to. They went with me because I said it would screw up my trumpet playing.

NUVO: Tell me about your IU experiences.

Botti: It was pretty much well known that IU is one of the most prestigious music programs in the world. I really came there pretty much based on the personality of one individual, and then two people really changed my music. When I was in high school, I met David Baker, who's the jazz educator there. His enthusiasm for kids, music and all that really made me go, "I'm going to go to IU."

When I got to IU, it wasn't until I began studying for a little while that I found out about Mr. Bill Adam. Bill Adam was the trumpet teacher there for many years and taught so many famous trumpet players, but I didn't know about him until I got there. Once I got there and started studying with him, it was a literally daily occurrence where I went, "I'm really glad I studied with Mr. Adam." All the things that have made me a successful trumpet player, I learned from Bill Adam at IU.

NUVO: What did he do? Did he change your technique?

Botti: Oh gosh, yeah. Everything. I guess the one strength I have as a trumpet player -- and all the trumpet players say, "I like Chris Botti's tone" -- all that. The tone, the sound, the production, the physical part of playing the trumpet -- I got all that from Bill Adam. Even if you're a good musician, you might not be able to play very high or play soft or with a pretty sound or when you get into the lower register, it gets all whiny sounding and ratty. Those are all very common things with the trumpet and that's one reason you don't hear many trumpet players.

Mr. Adam gave me the ability to have a career. So the IU experience for me was huge because the same time I'm learning jazz from David Baker, I'm crafting my trumpet playing through Bill Adam.

I remember one of the first days I started studying with Mr. Adam [in 1981] and I'd come up to the practice room at 9 o'clock in the morning to start practicing. All the trumpet players would be glaring at me. I'm like, "What's wrong?" They're like, "9 o'clock? That's a little late, isn't it?" I'm like, "How long have you been here?" "We've been here since 6, practicing."

So I went from being a real dedicated high school kid to literally playing the trumpet eight to 10 hours a day with all the prodding of all those other students.

NUVO: When you were at IU, did you envision your career being anything like it is?

Botti: No. I don't think one could pick this sort of success out. This is needle-in-a-haystack success. I never really envisioned this.

When I was growing up, the guys I looked up to -- David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Steve Gadd -- were all great musicians who also played on pop tours. So I thought the best I could ever dream of was getting one of those big, sophisticated, popular tours. I ended up doing a long stint with Paul Simon. I toured in Joni Mitchell's band and then subsequently a long tour with Sting.

I could have ended it right there, but my ego -- I wanted to be the star, dammit! (laughs) I thought, well, maybe I can place the trumpet in front of that whole project. And that's what happened.

NUVO: This is your second PBS pledge special. What happened after the first?

Botti: The pledge concert that preceded this -- the Wilshire show with Sting and Burt Bacharach and Jill Scott and all that -- set the table for a couple of things to happen. First of all, everyone said, "No one is going to watch a show with a trumpet player." Or "No one is going to watch an instrumental show." That show was a little bit of the Little Engine That Could. We put the show out and I went around the country doing promotion for it and it caught on. Then it really caught on and PBS came back and asked if we'd like to do another one.

The station that had a lot to do with the success of our show was Boston. So we went to Boston to a) say thank you, but b) to make music in arguably the best concert hall in the world with the greatest pops orchestra. From there, it was the same sort of template.

NUVO: This special looks so seamless -- like the hardest part was the logistics. How hard is it to put something like this together?

Botti: It was a very tough night because a gentleman had a heart attack in the second row during the taping. It was during a duet with myself and John Mayer. So there were a lot of dramatic things going on. They stopped the show for a half an hour while they tried to revive this gentleman. They got him revived, and we came out playing "Fragile" with Yo-Yo Ma and Sting and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. There was all this other emotional stuff going on. We didn't know till the next day that he's OK and all is fine.

NUVO: You tell the audience that your advice is: practice, practice, practice and be friends with Sting. So, how does one get to do that?

Botti: I got lucky. I met him originally through a show he did in New York called the Rainforest Foundation Benefit. Somebody recommended me as "the trumpet player on the scene" or whatever. We did a duet. A couple of weeks later, Frank Sinatra passed away and I had this crazy notion: Wouldn't it be great if Sting would sing a Sinatra song with me. I called his manager and asked if Sting would consider singing on my album. She called back the next day and said, "He'd love to -- if you'd play a couple of solos on his record." I'm like, who got the better end of that deal?

A friendship was born from that, and he made my career. I was in his band for two years. He fired me from his band with the promise that I should walk into the spotlight and be his opening act. He said, "Chris, I'm going to make your career. I'm going to do this." He did it. All the success I've had can be traced back to him. You know the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? My career is the Two Degrees of Sting. It always comes back to Sting. I'll never be able to repay him for what he's done for me.

NUVO: Your career is so interesting because you don't seem to approach things as an either-or, as in: Either I can play straight-ahead jazz or I can play commercial jazz. You seem comfortable in many musical worlds.

Botti: Ultimately, I think it's a thing that hurts jazz in a way. When John Mayer releases a record right now, he's not constantly fielding questions about how he's never going to be as great as Bob Dylan. It's like, "I'm John Mayer and I want to have an audience and a fan base and tour and make music and have people appreciate it." He's never going, "I'm never writing a generation-defining album like Bob Dylan did or Paul Simon did or The Beatles."

But in jazz, if somebody releases a record, they're saying, "You're never going to sing as good as Billie Holiday" or "You're never going to play the trumpet as good as Christopher Brown." That's an unfortunate part of being in the jazz genre because there's always "it has to be all this or all that."

Being around people like Sting, you realize it doesn't have to be all this or all that. Sting had a rock band with four unbelievable jazz musicians, including Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. Now, how does that work? Were they all of a sudden not jazz musician because they're playing stadiums with Sting? No. Were they all of a sudden not jazz musicians because they're popular? No. Was Kenny Kirkland less of a great piano player when he was with Sting than when he was with Wynton Marsalis' band? No.

I looked at that template and said there has to be a way to blur the lines -- and not just me trying to come out and make records that would interfere with Wynton Marsalis' career. When I came to New York [it] was when Wynton Marsalis was absolutely breaking onto the scene huge. The first thing I said to myself was, "I don't want to go anywhere near doing a bebop record. As long as Wynton Marsalis is alive, he's got it."

I know what I do well. It's the funniest thing about jazz musicians. They're constantly trying to do the exact same thing. There are all these trumpet players and they all put out the exact same record and none of them are going to break through that ceiling that Wynton has. I say, don't try to break through that ceiling. Move to another house.

NUVO: When you're playing with rock musicians like Bill Bruford and Tony Levin, is it the same kind of sensation as playing with someone like Yo-Yo Ma? The musical styles obviously are night and day, but do you get the same pleasure?

Botti: Absolutely. It's interesting you brought up those people. First and foremost, I'm a fan of musicians. I never want to lose that absolute admiration to be on stage with guys and women who have crafted their instrument to a point of originality. Bill Bruford being a great example -- one of the nicest gentlemen you could ever meet and he can play the crap out of the drums. He's so great. The same with Tony Levin and all those musicians.

Yo-Yo Ma, to me, is very much from that same sort of fame. All those people in that Boston show: They worked at their craft to make their abilities stand out to a point that sets them apart from everyone else. And that's what I love in people -- whatever walk of life they go into.

NUVO: In the opening number of the new pledge special, you hold a note for a while, and the audience loves that. It reminded me of how Frank Zappa used to play these extremely intricate guitar parts and get virtually no reaction. Then he'd make the guitar scream or something silly and the audience went crazy -- which he hated. When you hold a note for a long time, which is physically difficult but probably not the most difficult thing you do, and the audience goes wild, do you ever think: If only you people knew?

Botti: No. Here's the difference. When you circular breathe on the saxophone -- and Kenny G has done that and held that note for an hour -- that's one thing. Or when people do an organ solo and land on a high note and turn up the sound and everyone goes crazy. All that is completely different than playing the trumpet, OK?

First of all, I never circular breathe. Second of all, to play that high note unbelievably quiet and hold it for that long is very much like a slam-dunk competition in basketball. It's almost the same thing. For me, it's probably one of the most physical things I do. You want to have absolute control up there. You want to play in a whisper but still projecting to the audience. And you want to make it seem effortless.

If you're a trumpet player, you know that. All the trumpet players geek out on that stuff. But only a trumpet player would know how difficult that is. It's one of my trademarks: to get evenly around the trumpet, effortlessly. On the trumpet, it's a much different sensation than someone who goes in the upper register of another instrument. They can circular breathe. It's just not that hard.

I've never played a saxophone in my life, but I can pick up a soprano saxophone and at least get a note out. It's a completely different thing with a trumpet. That's why the trumpet's so damn hard and there aren't that many, but there are many, many saxophone players. Because the instrument is quite a bit easier. But you can't really advertise that when you're in concert.

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