Along with a restless creativity, a drive to gig relentlessly, and an exacting sense of what suits him as a musician, trumpeter Chris Botti has swagger and panache. Ask the impossibly youthful-looking 54-year-old why he chose (or it chose him) the knotty brass instrument and its haunting silvery tone, and Botti points to the legendary Miles Davis. "Not just his sound or inventiveness, but his image, his suits, his stance, the way he carried himself, from his pride and freedom, right down to that insignia of his." That's where Davis' lean figure is hunched and clutching his horn, curved like a question mark. That symbol is, to Botti, as iconic as Davis' modernist tone.
Botti, whose last album was 2012's Impressions, is a thoroughly modern jazz man who, like Davis and harmolodic saxophonist Ornette Coleman, balks at genre distinction "because it says something abstract or old-fashioned to too great an audience who might not get subtle distinctions."
Botti is modern because he can talk as much about hard album sales vs. downloads vs. streaming services as he can pop talents like Taylor Swift. But that doesn't explain why he's extended himself into the traditional pop world, he says of working with such nonjazz singers as Barbra Streisand, Paul Simon, Mary J. Blige, John Mayer, and, most famously, Sting. "I just think of myself as an entertainer. I like to entertain. Entertainment is not a bad word."
After mentioning other jazz entertainers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Botti recalls working with Frank Sinatra – a totem of standard song and a fellow Italian American – for the trumpeter's first truly big gig. "It was 1984, Universal Amphitheater with Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. I was still in college. He was my ideal. Yes, his voice wasn't the voice of his youth, but he had IT, that unbound attention and enthusiasm for song – and his audience. He came out, with an ear monitor to guide him, and sang to every member of those front rows. He related to them. Not just pointed, but spoke to them like friends. He defined that sort of charisma from his start. I identified with that. Still do. That's an entertainer. That's who I wanted to be. It's not just about suiting yourself, you know?"
With that, Botti – who commenced his recording career with 1995's First Wish and four follow-up albums of original material – moved into covering a mix of standard Tin Pan Alley song and contemporary classics, welcomed guests such as pianist-producer David Foster and opera-lite vocalist Andrea Bocelli on his albums, and created a salted-caramel jazz brand that could never be called "soft jazz" ("no, that never sounds good, does it?"), yet could never be confused with his first jazz hero, Miles.
In an economy where songwriter rights and album sales are challenging to recording artists ("luckily, adults still pay for music"), Botti is happy to tour relentlessly and host the occasional PBS special (his next will be soon in Boston for airing this autumn). "Thank God for the road, booking agents cool enough to bring us into a city like Philly every other season, and, of course the crowds that come out to see me," Botti said with the enthusiasm of a teen gamer. "I just love to play with the guys of my band onstage and relate to the faces in the audience."