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Chris Botti serves jazz, pop genres in equal measure

Chris Botti has teamed with an  impressive array of superstars. He credits them, in part, for his popularity.
Chris Botti has teamed with an impressive array of superstars. He credits them, in part, for his popularity. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Pop and jazz — contemporary music genres that love to pretend they are chummy neighbors. Yet few artists have the technical chops, improvisatory prowess and broad commercial appeal to serve as an ambassador to both. At least not until Chris Botti came along.

His pop credentials? Let's start with a 12-year stretch beginning in 1990 that included touring duties alongside, in quick succession, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Sting. And let's not forget a ridiculously involved recording-studio dossier that placed Botti in the company of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Natalie Merchant and scores of others.

But it was in jazz that Botti was schooled. A masterfully tasteful trumpeter, the Oregon native, 49, spent summers in his youth studying in New York with such greats as Woody Shaw and George Coleman, developing a lyrical, graceful and quietly emotive tone that bore the obvious mark of Miles Davis cool.

So how have the two camps co-existed on Botti's recordings? Quite nicely. Pop and jazz sit comfortably side by side on albums like the 2009 concert set Chris Botti in Boston with a band boasting such unappreciated jazz lions as bassist Robert Hurst, formerly of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, and drummer Billy Kilson, an alumnus of the Dave Holland Quintet, and a repertoire that stretches from Ave Maria to Davis' Kind of Blue-era classic Flamenco Sketches.

And yes, the resulting sound sells in the form of Grammys and gold and multiplatinum records as well as sold-out tours that keep Botti on the road, by his estimation, about 300 days a year.

"After years and years of playing in so many different bands that I respect or being in the studio with just about everyone that makes music in a popular way, I found myself wanting to simply make the kind of music I would want to listen to.

"Sometimes, I'll hear an artist in concert where, even though they're great, the music starts sounding the same after two or three songs. And sometimes I will go see a super entertaining artist, but there's not enough meat in the music for me to lend an ear. It feels like a pop star and a bunch of people playing some parts.

"This is really where my road to popularity began. Some people have a hit song. Some people dress crazy or whatever. My road in has come from surrounding myself with great music and great people and then letting them go."

Not all of Botti's collaborative projects have been obvious megastar turns. In 1998, he teamed with a trio of prog-rock vets — drummer Bill Bruford, bassist Tony Levin and guitarist David Torn — for a pair of albums full of heavy, uncompromising, improvisatory music.

"We would do one song every night that was 100 percent improvised. No one knew who would start the song, what key it would be in, nothing. It was so bizarre but so wonderful."

The work with Bruford, Levin and Torn came about almost by accident. The three had teamed with Mark Isham on Torn's 1984 album Cloud About Mercury. Isham is a similarly-minded trumpeter who helped forge a career path for Botti, even though the former's music led him to film scoring instead of elegantly designed pop.

"I always thought of Mark as a great model of a trumpet player who was very cool and has this wonderful, eclectic sense about him," Botti said. "I looked at his live shows and thought to myself, 'How can I use this as an influence but also move beyond it in a more popular way?' I didn't necessarily want to go feeding the trappings of Hollywood film stuff. I wanted to be in front. I wanted to stand at the front of the stage and connect with an audience."

That connection is likely to grow deeper with Botti's next studio album in the spring. Among the collaborators: Herbie Hancock, who co-composed an orchestral suite with Botti for the recording; Vince Gill, who adds vocals to a version of Randy Newman's Losing You; and Mark Knopfler, who teams with Botti and a full orchestra for an update of What a Wonderful World.

Could Botti, in the earliest stages of his career, have imagined his music would extend so deeply into the pop and jazz worlds?

"Not in a million years," he said. "No way. But that's the thing I'm most proud of, really — having that respect from such varied types of musicians and audiences. That is such a wonderful feeling. I am very grateful for that every time I walk onstage, for sure."

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