Chris Botti hasn’t recorded a hit song. He isn’t the host of an afternoon talk show. But he’s been quietly filling auditoriums and concert halls around the world for almost two decades.
He might be the best trumpet player you’ve never heard of.
The top-selling instrumental artist in the country won a Grammy for his last album, “Impressions,” a mixed-genre CD that also featured Vince Gill, Mark Knopfler and Andrea Bocelli, which proves that jazz may be where Botti begins — after all he got his first break in college playing for Frank Sinatra — but it’s not the whole story. He’s toured with Sting and Paul Simon. Played with Tony Bennett. Barbara Streisand. Lady Gaga. Steven Tyler. Joshua Bell.
So why hasn’t he been more visible?
He’s been building his audience not with trendy paid influencers on Instagram or via “branding” campaigns — rather one performance, one city, one autograph at a time. I caught up with him in Los Angeles recently, the morning after he’d played to a full house — an audience of 16,000 — at the Hollywood Bowl.
Botti tours more than 300 days each year. When he’s not traveling, he’s at home in New York City.
“I checked into the Mercer Hotel (in the heart of Soho) three years and one week ago, and I have not checked out,” Botti says. “I own six suits and a trumpet. I have no other possessions.
“At 55, I live my life the same way I did when I was a kid. I put my horn on my shoulder and go to music school in Greenwich Village, where I practice every day for five hours. I’m playing in a space where I’m surrounded by music students. It activates something different in me than if I were at a posh house just practicing in some room.”
At the tender age of 9, Botti heard Miles Davis on the radio. The music spoke to him.
“It’s the melancholy of Miles,” Botti explains. “Miles had that haunting, brooding thing and it captivated me at that young age. It ignited that kind of insane determination inside of me. Everyone says, ‘Oh you’re so talented,’ but that’s kind of a myth. Most musicians that I know that are good; 95 percent is due to discipline and determination.”
Botti’s style has been compared to everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Chet Baker, Miles Davis and Louie Armstrong. The trumpeter, however, doesn’t feel as though he fits into any one label.
“Maybe I’m kind of a mix of all of them,” Botti says. “I think you become a byproduct of all of the stuff you listen to. I certainly use a lot more classical techniques than Dizzy Gillespie did, and some people have said my music is more accessible than Miles. But at the core, we’re all musicians. We all do it to move someone’s emotions.”
It’s that mix of techniques that makes his musical talent defy labels. Botti is known for his collaborations and crossovers into other genres, especially pop.
“That was my way in — being around pop singers, being around Paul Simon. But association with Sting hit the home run for me,” Botti says. “I owe the majority of my career to my friendship with him. He introduced me to his audience and I learned. He’s the one who said to stand to the side and let your band shine. He’s the guy that really respects and really admires great musicians, and he’s always let great musicians in.”
Transitioning from one genre to another may be difficult for artists who typically play one type of music, but Botti says he’s become accustomed to those performances.
“You get a sense for it. Last night Jewel opened and we did a duet, but I’d never been on stage with her before. How the trumpet leans against the voice, you gotta do it in a way that feels comfortable,” Botti says.
Speaking of the powerful sound of the trumpet, Botti says, “I can push someone out of the room if I want, or shade in and make it a luxurious bed in a nonthreatening way for a singer. So last night with Jewel, she’s got this tender voice, you can’t come into the china shop being the bull.”
Collaboration with the other performers on stage – a singer or musician – is of utmost importance. It’s that interaction which defines the course of the performance. Familiarity is mutually beneficial.
“It helps if you’re friends.”
Botti admits it’s unusual for a musician to cross over and play so many different types of music, but that’s what keeps it interesting...and honest.
“It’s the journey and interacting with other musicians. A lot of people only want to make their music and don’t want to share the stage, but I’m not like that. Whether it’s Steven Tyler or Yo Yo Ma, if it’s someone I admire, I’ll play with them. It may be good or bad, but it’ll be genuine.”
Though the musician has played with many high profile performers, there are still a few out there he’d like to play with. “I would maybe love to do something with Peter Gabriel, and Ed Sheeran; he’s a great young singer,” Botti says.
While most musicians tour to promote an album then return home, Botti is the opposite, seemingly always on tour.
“I’m out touring because I’m miserable when I’m not touring, so why not tour? I have a family — which is my band — and you get a rush from the audience, and you get to make music, and get paid. When I go home to real life, I’m just practicing in music school. It’s not a very well grounded life, but it’s awesome.”
The unorthodox lifestyle does have its drawbacks. Botti admits it’s hard to have a romantic relationship, but insists the devotion to his craft is worth it.
“I’m very committed to my trumpet and feel very fortunate to be able to do what I do,” Botti says.
When asked to describe his set list, the musical diversity that sets him apart is evident. “It’s probably 30 percent classical in a Bocelli way, and there’s some jazz and rock and R&B,” Botti says. “I couldn’t tell you how many people saw me afterwards, and said, ‘What was that?’ Rob Reiner came up to me last night and said, ‘That’s best show I’ve ever seen, any musical act — but what was it?’”
In addition to his ambitious touring schedule, the trumpeter is planning to tape a new PBS show in early 2018, and to record a new CD next summer. With everything turning up roses for the performer, we decided to delve farther into the future.
What music would you want played at your funeral?
“That’s a dark question,” Botti says.
“I wouldn’t want it to be my music, for sure. Keith Jarrett’s Somewhere over the Rainbow — but only if he was playing it.”