ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — With the Rochester International Jazz Festival right around the corner, tents are going up, the ticket booths are open, and the musicians are prepping. Listeners are excited to also check out the headliners outside at Parcel 5. The opening night headliner is trumpeter Chris Botti.
Botti has made his mark across the world as an incredible presenter of jazz and pop music, and seamlessly blending the two. His live shows have become an art unto themselves. On this tour, the GRAMMY winner (fr his 2013 album, “Impressions”), is also bringing along star singer Veronica Swift.
Here’s our 1-on-1 with Chris Botti, where he discusses star power, his own process and career, as well as his answer’s to Dan’s “Big Three” questions. This interview has been edited for clarity.
We mentioned it right at the beginning, you’ve been, you’ve been to Rochester a bunch, you’ve played here a lot. You keep finding yourself back here. What do you like about playing in our neck of the woods?
I think before we could actually sell a lot of tickets or have a lot of fans, we started playing Rochester. That festival has been so good to me and early on supporting us and believing in us. And then you can literally feel the enthusiasm and the audiences grow as we continue to come back over the years. I don’t know how many times we played the festival per see… At least something like four or five (times). But I know like that, that the hall there, we played many times, and we played different venues.
We’ve done a bunch of privates up there for fundraisers for the festival and stuff like that. The people are lovely, the music audience is terrific. I mean, obviously, you have the impact of Eastman there and everything. So it’s not a math equation that’s hard to draw up, that you would have some big-time music fans there. But I’ve just been fortunate to be able to be asked, and we’re coming back and looking forward to it.
Veronica Swift — who is also a Jazz Festival favorite — is singing with you guys. She’s been on the road with you guys for a couple of years. Why is she someone that is on the road with you?
I try to go out and scout, or basically surround myself with excellent musicians, that’s more than just being a good musician. There are a lot of very, very, very talented people in the world… But then there’s some other kind of star factor, or ability to have charisma on stage. And that’s a harder thing to put your finger on. You can be talented and not want anything to do with an audience. You know, that’s that’s not an unusual thing. And it’s not bad.
Veronica has this super rare gift, and all the study that gets you — as they say in music, the chops — and having this great understanding of jazz, but she’s got that other star quality thing that I think is so profound with her. I saw it when I first met her in a little jam session in New York, three or four years ago now. And she’s been on the road with us ever since.
I think she’s just extraordinary talent. And I would say that about the rest of the people in the band, my violinist, and the drummer and everyone… But Veronica has star quality as a singer, which is kind of more elusive.
That’s actually something I wanted to touch with you about. When we talk about the star quality and being in front of an audience, if I may say, that’s something that you have a talent for, as well. How did you grow and cultivate that presence?
I think it goes back to like my first professional gig — which I dropped out of school, which isn’t the best message — but I got an opportunity to go on the road, to be on tour with Frank Sinatra. So it was a two-week gig at the Universal Amphitheater in 1984. And Sinatra was still really in good form then.
I still remember this very unique thing that he (did); he would walk out, and he has all that star quality, and everyone’s going nuts, right? He would walk out in the audience and he would pull what I call “a trifecta,” or something. He would communicate to the person at the very back of the room with his massive star quality, then he would speak to people and have a conversation with them like Don Rickles, like an old-school comedian. He would be talking to some couple in the front row during the course of the show.
So that sort of brings all the people in the back down, it makes it intimate. So this larger-than-life person makes something intimate. And then he would do what no act does anymore. He would turn around and acknowledge, the bandleader, the arranger — if it was Nelson Riddle, conducting, or Don Costa arrangement, or whatever it was — so you had the audience in on the game. They feel like they’re watching something that it’s not going to be (replicated) the next day, whatever chemistry is going the stage. He’s making the audience feel that they’re in on watching something that’s developing.
So I figured out I’m not going to be an artist with like, big pop hits. So my hit is really the show. So what I can we deliver is something different, that’s unique, and that also lets the audience in on the quality, the incredible musicianship, and what may or may not go down on this next piece of stuff. That’s been my way in, to have our audiences grow.
So many concerts that I go to now, people get up there, and they say, “The next song is, ‘boom,’ the next song is…” But there’s no storytelling behind it. And when people do storytelling, it doesn’t seem sincere, it seems contrived in a way… I just kind of like, put myself in the audience’s place and go, “What would I want to be in on here? Like, what would I want to know about this person that’s unique? That’s different? That’s funny? That’s, you know, that shows their incredible artistry.” That’s not just “We’d like to play, a Gershwin song, and Gershwin wrote this.”
I have my own opinion on how I want to do this stuff. And I’ve just kind of crafted it over the past 20 years and, and it’s working.
Your breakout album “Night Sessions,” featured a lot of tunes you co-wrote. Then your most recent — and GRAMMY winner — 2013’s “Impressions,” had music from so many genres, and so many different guest artists. I wanted to explore (how) you grew from nine sessions to where you are now.
(With) my earlier records, I wanted to set myself up as a writer, and I think once I did the “When I Fall in Love” record, which had the London Symphony Orchestra, and I really positioned myself as the tone of the instrument being as important as the compositions.
It got me thinking, people go see Yo-Yo Ma, or they go see Keith Jarrett… Even though (Jarrett) writes, but the stuff for me that I love of his is when he plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or “I Loves You, Porgy.” This is Keith Jarrett I’m talking about, and (so) what you’re left with is the art, that incredible appreciation for the touch, the timbre, the tone, the expression of the instrument… in that same way Pavarotti was in that same way from that kind of music.
All the great violinists are that way, and I kind of removed myself from writing as a focus… (Though) I did the one song on “Impressions” with Herbie because, well, when you get an opportunity to write a song with Herbie Hancock, what can go wrong? He’s a genius.
So that was a conscious decision, to put myself in a more classical, or a more classic sort of framework. It’s been a really good decision for me. Now, on my next record, I may write a little bit… But we play “Hallelujah” every night. And people in the audience are crying. And I think that that’s a wonderful thing. To look out there, and see that emotion being connected. But no one’s singing it. It’s just me playing it.
So I think that I kind of figured out where my strong suits are, and where they maybe aren’t. Or maybe it’s more difficult for instrumental composition to really puncture the consciousness of people. I know, there was a radio format that would play instrumental compositions, but it all sort of seemed as the years ticked on, and all of it seemed homogenized, and you lose that ability to have that spark… It just seemed to be like format driven, rather than artist-driven or something.
What’s something new or different or refreshing about playing someone else’s music? What do you get from that, when it’s written by someone else?
Well, you get, you get recognition from the audience… When we play “Blue In Green,” or something like that, or “Sketches of Spain,” people have some sort of imagery of that. They relate to it, and then it’s up to you, obviously, to pull it off. There’s been a lot of people that have covered “Hallelujah,” and a lot of people have covered “Cinema Paradiso,” and all that stuff.
There’s a lot of people that have “covered” Brahms and Bach — if you could call it that — so why is Lang Lang the greatest pianists around today, or Joshua Bell or something like that? Because they bring something to the table that’s their beautiful sound, technique, and all that stuff. And so it’s a little bit more of a classical approach.
We touched upon a lot already. But what is one of your shows look like? What can people expect when they go the show? Take us there.
I feel like I’m this island unto itself in this way. If you say “hey,” to your friend or whatever, “I got tickets to see U2.” And as you approach Madison Square Garden, you pretty much know that you’re going to see: four guys with a big live show, and a big sound system, and they’re going to be reduplicating “Joshua Tree.”
My show is completely the opposite of that. If you came to one of my shows, and I reduplicated my records, which are lifestyle records, you’re supposed to make everyone kind of be in a mood… I would harken back to when Miles Davis recorded “Kind of Blue.” (That) a lifestyle record that kept everyone in the mood. But when he went out and played live the tempos were like 30 BPM quicker, and it was much more frenetic, and he was playing all this esoteric stuff.
So I don’t think the “John Q Public” would like (it) live… As much as they love (my) lifestyle records… I can’t duplicate my records in concert because it would be too quiet. It would be too gentle to be too romantic. So you got to come out and blaze — that means show muscle musical muscle — like in classical music when Joshua Bell plays a concert, everyone stands up for the Paganini, all that flashy technique stuff… But when that same audience goes home, they don’t listen to all that flashy techniques. They listen to Chopin Nocturnes, right or Brahms.
My sort of situation is the same. I mean, I can’t tell you how many of my friends, my friends, say “so we’re going to come see you at the Hollywood Bowl. Is it just you and a trumpet?” I’m like, “Oh, God. No, it’s not just me and a trumpet.”
The show is peaks and valleys, and five special guests, and people floating in and out, and we ramp it up, so people are going crazy. And then we bring it down so people can have emotions to cry. It’s paced all the way through, and my live shows have become their own thing unto themselves. And that’s why our audiences build over time.
I think sometimes people go see concerts because they think they have to, because they’re deemed as like, almost like a seeing an art museum or something like that. And then they have to go and then they say, “Well, I went and saw it, and that was it.” But we seem to have people that come see us and go, “Wow, we weren’t expecting that at all. We’re going to be back and we’re going to tell our friends.” And that’s been our grassroots campaign for this sort of thing… Why am I using a political analogy? I don’t know.
That’s been on my front burner for me, to develop something that people aren’t going to see when they go see the rock band at Madison Square Garden. It’s a different sort of experience. I would stand by that all the way.
I read an interview of yours where you’re talking about a lot of your inspiration, and how some of that came from hearing Miles Davis’s My Funny Valentine. What about hearing Miles Davis playing that tune really made you say, “Man, I want to do that?“
Miles recorded that song so many different times. But the one version that I saw was (from a concert) at Avery Fisher Hall here in New York. Miles’ trumpet playing really matured, strikingly, over his career. He was a much more beautiful trumpet player. His sound was so much better… Trumpet is a very physical instrument. So like a great gymnast or something, he had all that elasticity in his tone in the early 60s. By the time it got to like the 70s, the road had taken a little bit of that. That’s sinewy smoothness, and flexibility out of his tone.
But that particular concert, when Herbie Hancock played the intro, and then you heard Miles’s piercing beautiful low haunting trumpet sound… It knocked me over and I was just like, “I want to play the trumpet for the rest of my life…”
(It had a) startling effect on me because with the exposed way that Herbie set it up and it was just miles playing them there’s nothing else underneath them. No bass, nothing, just out of time. I just heard that sound I was like “wow, that’s pretty powerful.”
We started talking about Rochester and why it’s so great. Next one here. What is the next big accomplishment that you’d like to achieve, the next feather in your cap, the next big goal you want to hit… What’s that for you?
My agent asked me that the other night! I’m not a musician that cares about branding, or having a line of this or that and the other thing… I want to be able to be healthy, and tour and to keep up on the trumpet, which is a very unforgiving mistress.
And that said, I’m going go in and do my very first record for my new record company Blue Note Records, and I’ll record that in August. I don’t know when it comes out. Don Was is going to produce. So this is a new jumping-off point for me in so many different ways. And the only thing I can say is I don’t know what it’s going to be like.
I’m so looking forward to it, and two, three, four years from now, if I’m lucky enough to play the Rochester Jazz Festival again, you can ask me and I’ll tell you how it went.
Well, I look forward to that. We love having you back. Last one. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
I don’t know if my advice is any good. You’re talking to someone that’s never been on Instagram, or Facebook, or Tik Tok. I don’t really partake in the things that people kind of wrap themselves up into, and need to in this day, but to fly in the face of all that stuff.
I would just say to any young person, trust me when I tell you your number one currency is respect from your peers. That’s why Veronica is on the road with us. And why she’s touring with Jazz at Lincoln Center as well. And why I think she’s going to have a real big career is because she’s getting the things that are long-lasting. That’s respect from her peers. And if some young person can do that, on a very small level, (like at a) little club, moving someone’s emotions that that will snowball into something that’s more long-lasting than just I put up something cool on TikTok. It’s fleeting.
That’s the only thing I would say is to be careful of the instant gratification of what you think you’re getting for another “like,” and just try to hone in on what is really important. Beautiful sound or beautiful playing or whatever your trip is.