© 2024 WBGO
Discover Jazz...Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jazz with pop sensibilities: Chris Botti on his first new album in 10 years

Chris Botti
Randall Slavin
Chris Botti

Grammy award-winning trumpet Chris Botti is a busy man with something new to be excited about. It's been a decade since he released a new project and this one is a gem. It's an album called Volume 1, which finds Chris in a small group setting playing acoustic jazz and classic standards. He talks about the new record, his very first Chris Botti at Sea Cruise and his latest hobby—auto racing! Listen in and see what this modern day Renaissance man is up to.

Listen to our conversation, above.


Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: Your fans are excited, and I'm one of them, about your first album in more than a decade. That's been a long time.

Chris Botti: It has been a long time. The last time I made a record, Tower Records and Barnes and Noble were roaming the earth without regulation.

You’re coming back with a small group project—acoustic jazz and classic standards. That must feel like home for you.

It does. I'm just really excited to be part of the iconic Blue Note record label. The special thing for me was to do a record with David Foster at the helm. He's my man. I love him so much. He goes, “Chris, I'm never going to come out of retirement unless it was for you.” I was like, “Come on, David, let's do this record.” To get someone with those kind of pop sensibilities to do a jazz record, and certainly a sparse jazz record, he just knocked it out of the park. He's amazing.

How did you meet? How did that friendship begin?

We met a long time ago on a benefit concert when I was in Sting's band around 2000. He would just call me to come in and do solos and from that, we became friends. The way that his mind edits, it almost got to a point where he was writing out solos for me. He would say, “Chris, could you play something?” I would reply, “David, you have the most beautiful melodic sense. Go for it.” The way that he compiled my solos together, edited me and kept me from overthinking. I was like, “David, that's all you need to do for everyone. Just edit. You don't need to be a jazz pianist extraordinaire. Your taste is phenomenal.” He's awesome. He's been just such a great, great friend and anchor for me in so many ways.

The results are lovely from this collaboration and even though it's a little bit of a departure for you because of all the things that you've been doing over the last 20 years or so, in another way, it really isn't because you've always had this beautiful, elegant, melodic sensibility in everything that you've done. I guess what heightens it here is just, as you mentioned, the sparseness. The fact that all of the orchestration is cut away. It's really pared down to the essence of what this music is about and you can hear that in all those songs here.

When I met with Don Was, who is the President of Blue Note Records, he said, “It's not your kind of music, but I really admire somebody like Willie Nelson, who puts the sound of his voice in a very, very, vulnerable sort of way. He puts it out there and, and just delivers without fanfare.” That was kind of the thing we were chasing, obviously Miles Davis in Kind of Blue in the jazz world and Pat Metheny with that Missouri Sky record so many years ago, or Keith Jarrett with The Melody at Night with You. We kind of used all those in the jazz world as a template to make this album.

The result is just really lovely. It's the kind of thing you can get lost in. And I think the timing of it coming out right now, I know you just had a really important birthday. Don't feel bad, honey, I'm older than you. As long as I'm around, there will be somebody that's older than you are. These last couple of years have been a real turning point. I think for a lot of us in our lives, birthdays notwithstanding, is the fact that we've seen so many things change. Changes in the way we do things, having time that we didn't ask for. To be off and to have to stop for a minute and think and breathe. It seems that it makes sense that this project comes out of that period.

I think that's the main reason why I call it Volume One. It’s my first foray into my relationship with Blue Note. It's also, as you said, kind of like we’re reworking our brains. It's almost like we all have to find a new way as touring musicians and artists and people communicating—both in how we communicate and where we communicate from. That's a big deal and also turning 60.

Is there going to be a Volume Two?

I hope so. Don Was and I did a Zoom this morning and we're talking about doing Volume Two and Three. That would be a great little trio. I think Bill Evans did three records with Tony Bennett back in the ‘70s, we kind of looked at that as a good one too.

You mentioned the Blue Note connection, which does mean a lot. This is an historic label. It is legendary. The label has always been a standard bearer for jazz music, so this association has got to be pretty cool for you too.

I had a great run with Columbia, and then to have gone from Verve to Columbia and now to Blue Note which is quite possibly way more important than Columbia, for jazz history. It's a great, great honor to be part of it.

I've already heard a couple of the tracks from it, like “My Funny Valentine,” featuring Joshua Bell on that song. You often include the violin in your arrangements. What do you love about it?

First of all, “Funny Valentine” has been covered by a zillion people, and David Foster said to Taylor Eigsti “When you play piano, just put the chords in this position, this register, and don't do the obvious jazz thing, which is play a chord and fill behind the soloist.” It's almost like classical music. If you don't know it's a duet with Joshua Bell, I think you're taken aback because all of a sudden, you feel this sort of Chopin pop jazz thing. Then all of a sudden Joshua comes in and that arrangement that Rob Mathes wrote to really feature Joshua with a real technical prowess, but there's still the beauty in his incredible sound.

I've known Joshua for so many years. He grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and I went to college there so I knew him then. We toured this particular arrangement seven years ago as part of a 10-city tour together and we always wanted to record it. When this came up, I said, “Let's do it.” I'm so thrilled that he said yes and it's one of the highlights of the album for sure.

That whole trumpet and violin thing is really lovely. I know you've been touring with violinists for a while. The beautiful ballads. Tell us a little bit about the band.

I've known Vinnie Calaiuta for so many years, he's maybe perhaps the most recorded drummer ever and he's long been associated with Sting and so many other people. He's just phenomenal but I wanted to also include some special guests that I've never met. Taylor Eigsti played piano on most of the record when David wasn't playing but the pianist on “Old Folks” is this 20-year-old prodigy, Esteban Castro.

Chris Botti - Old Folks

I'd only met him for one day and that was the second take. David is so spectacularly honest with his assessment of something. He heard Esteban play the first take, and he goes, “Esteban, I've never heard anything like that in my life. Can we slow the roll just a bit back? Just dial it back 30%,” and that was take number two. He's just got so much staggering talent and I only met him for that one day and he was fantastic. On “Bewitched,” we have Gilad Hekselman playing guitar. He's amazing. And I only met him that one day. Then our new single “Paris,” which is just released, is a vocal with John Splitoff singing so beautifully.

He wrote that song and I think it's in the wheelhouse of an audience that would be a Smooth Jazz audience or a pop audience. Yet it still has the romance of people that love Diana Krall. It’s got a lot of things working for it. That's the pop track and David lays in a beautiful key change, which he's so obviously well known for.

Chris Botti - Paris Ft. John Splithoff

A lot of fans are going to get a chance to hear it live because you're going to be touring extensively this fall, including going back to the Blue Note in New York for your annual holiday residency. How much fun is that to be able to spend all that time in New York, the city that you love so very much, and to be able to spread a little holiday cheer.

It's fun and it's terrifying, because when I look at the schedule between December 1st and July 1st, we have a total of two weeks off. It is just nonstop. We're going all over Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, plus all the stuff that we do in the States.

You're also hosting a cruise, Botti at Sea.

I'm doing my very first cruise where I am the host. That's terrifying too, because I have seen firsthand the way Dave Koz has done such a fantastic job of not only setting the benchmark, but just crushing it with his incredible personality and his musicianship. This is my maiden voyage, so to speak. In so many ways, like with Blue Note and the way that the record business is different now, including with the cruise, I'm excited to be a passenger and learn as I go. We've sold out already and I'm super excited about that. While we're putting the artists together for 2025, the maiden voyage for me is Valentine’s week of 2024.

I'll tell you what, explaining a jazz cruise to anyone who hasn't been on one can be really difficult to explain about the experience. The first time that cruises ever came up, I thought that sounded corny, but boy, here I am some 40 cruises later. For people who love music and love traveling, that's a great lifestyle experience. You certainly have a wonderful lineup on this cruise. Who are you most excited about having on your cruise?

The first call I made was to David Foster. I said, “If I can get him, then we're set.” First and foremost is David Foster. Then we have Katherine McPhee, Gregory Porter, Melody Gardot, Take 6, Samara Joy, Lisa Fischer, Taylor Eigsti, to name a few, as well as this gentleman named the Mentalist, Lior Suchard.

You have Alonzo Bodden as well too, right?

Yes. Keb’ Mo’ is on, so I'm just going to be like a fan. I've never met Gregory Porter but I'm a fan of his and that's going to be super fun. I've never met the guys in Take 6, but they're a legend. I'm very excited about it. I've been on cruises with you several times. The people are lovely. The camaraderie and the enthusiasm from the crowds, but that was when I just came on and I was just Chris Botti in my band. Now the pressure's on.

Listen, you can do it and the Jazz Cruises partners are terrific. Their jazz cruises are really standard bearers for that industry. There’s something for everybody to look forward to, but in the meantime, you're going to be on a ship, which means you're going to be kind of far away from your new hobby that you were telling me about.

Yeah, I got addicted in February to automobile racing. I had no idea, but I now own a house by the only country club in the world that is not interested in golf at all. Instead, it is the home of five world class racetracks. Lamborghini, Porsche and Ferrari race cars, it is just thrilling. I'm spending time down here in Thermal, California.

It’s hit me like a ton of bricks. When I listen to those engines in the cars and the Porsche or the McLaren or whatever—it's the most musical thing that I've seen. You've got to learn the skillset and I'm such a newbie. I was down there this morning and spent four hours with my coach. It's a lot like music because you have to be present and relaxed and when the band is smoking, you have to relate. In race car driving, you're driving for safety, which is different, because when you drive for jazz, you can drink and drive.

What’s your favorite car?

Well, I have a McLaren, which is perhaps my favorite car, but I wouldn't really take it on the track that much. The Porsches are the ones for the track. I have a Porsche GT4 RS, and that's a great, awesome sounding car. The engines right behind you with no cover on top, and it just sings like a symphony.

This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.