Trumpeter finds right mix on ‘Italia’

The musician is influenced by both jazz and pop.



NEW YORK — Chris Botti can’t quite figure out how he ended up competing for a Grammy with the Beastie Boys, but he did get a kick out of finding his melodically romantic CD “Italia” nominated with the funk-rock group’s “The Mix-Up” for best pop instrumental album.

The trumpeter never knows what to expect come Grammy season because he’s essentially created his own musical genre — mixing jazz, pop and, on “Italia,” even classical influences — which means his music doesn’t fit neatly into any category.

“It’s sometimes hard to figure out what the committee is going to do, but I think it’s fantastic that we’re up against the Beastie Boys. ... That’s something you don’t think about when you’re a kid growing up in Oregon,” laughed Botti, during a conversation over lunch at his hotel before his band was to perform at the Blue Note jazz club.

Botti has more in common with the other pop instrumental album nominees: Spyro Gyra (“Good to Go-Go”), Kirk Whalum (“Roundtrip”) and Dave Koz (“At The Movies”), on whose album Botti guests on “The Shadow of Your Smile.” But he no longer can be lumped together with R&B-influenced smooth-jazz musicians as he was early in his career.

“With my music ... there’s this constant dance that I’m doing between my affection for pop music and being around artsy pop musicians ... and my affection for Miles Davis ... and how do you marry those two together,” said the 45-year-old Botti. “I think there’s a huge appetite for jazz-influenced music which is melodic, accessible and reins it in but doesn’t dumb it down at all.”

Botti recalls that as a teenager in Corvallis, Ore., the jazz that really inspired him to make music his career was Davis’ spacey, melancholy ballad playing on early 1960s quintet recordings such as “My Funny Valentine.”

Botti also realized shortly after arriving in New York in 1986 to study with jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw that it was pointless for him to try to outdo Wynton Marsalis at rapid-fire bebop improvisations.

“If there’s one strength I’ve ever had during the course of my career is realizing what I’m not good at,” joked Botti, who didn’t release his debut album, “First Wish,” until 1995 at age 33.

Instead, he embraced working with the most sophisticated pop musicians: including Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Sting, who hired the trumpeter as the featured soloist on his 1999-2001 “Brand New Day” tour.

“Sting’s the guy that’s solely responsible for breaking the sound of my trumpet to the world,” said Botti. “He’s been on my CDs, DVDs and he’s been family to me. I’ll never be able to repay him.”

Sting did a guest turn on Botti’s breakthrough 2004 CD “When I Fall In Love,” on which the trumpeter seductively slowed the tempos, used lush orchestral arrangements and emphasized American Songbook standards.

Boosted by an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, it not only topped the jazz charts but reached No. 37 on Billboard’s Top 200, a rarity for a largely instrumental album. It also didn’t hurt that Botti, with his tousled blond hair and green eyes, had the good looks to be named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2004 and make the gossip columns when he briefly dated Katie Couric.

His duets album, “To Love Again” (2005) with guest singers including Gladys Knight and Steven Tyler, was an even bigger hit, resulting in a PBS special and a Grammy for best instrumental arrangement accompanying a vocalist for “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” with Sting.

“Italia,” his 10th album, is a heartfelt personal statement reflecting Botti’s romantic connection to his ancestral homeland. He even lived in Italy for two years as a child when his father, an Italian teacher, led a college exchange program.

Botti sculpted the album around the title track, which he composed with producer David Foster, a 14-time Grammy winner, with lyrics by Italian pop star Lorenzo Cherubini.

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