Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2012, 12:00am


Trumpeter Chris Botti will be playing in Manila on Tuesday, following a tour of Japan. He will not be appearing in Hong Kong, although he is one of a handful of internationally known jazz musicians who could probably fill a medium-sized auditorium here.

According to his label, Columbia Records, he is now the world's 'largest selling jazz instrumentalist' with three Billboard Jazz Chart No1 albums to his name, and several Grammy nominations.

Botti is promoting his latest album, Impressions, on which Columbia has continued the policy of featuring him in the company of guest stars across a range of genres. This was particularly successful with 2009's CD/DVD package Chris Botti in Boston.

This time we have singer-guitarists Mark Knopfler and Vince Gill, who are known for playing country-influenced rock; from the world of classical music, tenor Andrea Bocelli and violinist Caroline Campbell; and Herbie Hancock representing jazz.

While the guest list and the selection of accessible, and often universally familiar, tunes strongly suggests a record company's agenda rather than an artist's, Botti seems happy enough to go along with it.

After all, it isn't easy to sell CDs these days, much less a jazz performer. Even if he does look like a movie star and is promoted like one.

Botti works hard at it, though, touring for much of the year, and says that what he heard on the road influenced much of the composition of Impressions.

'People kept mentioning Chris Botti in Boston,' he recalls. 'They loved the music in that programme. But they talked a lot about the variety among the performers, too - Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, Sting, John Mayer, Josh Groban.'

There isn't a counterpart to Aerosmith vocalist Tyler here, and this is a studio rather than a live recording. But otherwise the formula has been more or less duplicated, with Campbell and Bocelli replacing Ma and Groban, Gill replacing Mayer, and Knopfler standing in for Sting.

The latter collaboration works well, and Botti claims that the gruff-voiced former Dire Straits frontman was at the top of his wish list. He was asked to sing and play on What a Wonderful World, and he brings to it some of the grizzled optimism that characterised the first hit recording by Louis Armstrong in 1968.

It is something of a shock to realise that Knopfler, at 62, is only five years younger than Armstrong was when he recorded the song, and less than 10 years further on from Sultans of Swing than Armstrong was from the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Time flies.

'We had the idea,' says Botti, 'of asking Mark to sing What a Wonderful World. How much more different could we get than that?' Knopfler is accustomed to working with jazz musicians on his own projects, and recently guested on a Dianne Reeves album, so it is not too surprising that he fits in well here.'

Herbie Hancock also works with an eclectic range of artists, and it must have been a particular pleasure for Botti - who claims he was inspired to pick up the trumpet by hearing Miles Davis play My Funny Valentine - to have his hero's former pianist collaborate with him on a track.

There is a China connection to the association. Hancock and Botti performed together at the White House at a state dinner for President Hu Jintao, and the album's producer, Bobby Colomby, suggested they might like to compose together. Botti went round to Hancock's house and Tango Suite was the fruit of an afternoon of experimental improvisation. Hancock also plays on the track.

Botti worked in a similar way with pianist and composer David Foster on Per Te on which Bocelli sings lyrics by Tiziano Ferro and Foster also plays.

Notwithstanding the presence of Knopfler and Gill, who sings Randy Newman's Losing You, the Brazilian stylings of Leonardo Amuedo, drafted in by arranger Vince Mendoza, are almost as prominent on the album as Botti's trumpet.

'We'd heard a lot of other guitar players, and liked everything they did,' says Botti. 'But as soon as we heard Leo, we started replacing the guitar parts we'd already recorded. His beautiful, nylon classic Spanish guitar sound is all over this record.'

Although Botti may have been inspired by Miles Davis, a closer parallel is with Chet Baker. As with Baker he is often underrated as a musician because of the way he has been marketed.

This is a commercially astute album but it contains some undeniably fine playing and a couple of strong original compositions. Botti is capable of more. It would be good to hear a blowing small group jazz set from him next.

Take Three

Three albums featuring the trumpet playing of Chris Botti:

First Wish (Verve, 1995): Botti's debut as a leader on Verve in the stellar company of late saxophonist Michael Brecker and a cast of 'first call' studio sidemen. A strong debut.

When I Fall in Love (Columbia, 2004): The star guests are beginning to come out with Sting and Paula Cole both present, and the tunes are standards or pop songs. Still plenty of jazz content though and Botti on fine form on trumpet.

Italia (Columbia, 2007): Italian-American Botti taps into his ancestral musical heritage with a set that includes Morricone and Puccini tunes, as well as a guest spot by the ghost of Dean Martin.