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From jamming in Gresham to a win at the Grammys

Oregonian Chris Botti's trumpet a prized commodity


by: COURTESY OF FABRIZIO FERRI - Grammy winner Chris Botti credits Doc Severinsen, the former band leader of 'The Tonight Show,' for inspiring him to play trumpet. Botti got his start playing gigs in the Portland area.Trumpeter Chris Botti learned early in his career not to jump the gun.

Take the time Frank Sinatra tapped him for a brief stint in his band. The Chairman of the Board called on Botti’s talents when the musician was fresh out of Indiana University.

“That was my first real professional gig when I was out of college,” Botti, a 50-year-old first-time Grammy winner with Portland roots, recalls. “It was two weeks’ worth of concerts in L.A.”

Sinatra was taken with his playing, he adds. “I played a solo ... and he said to me, ‘Nice solo, kid.’ I misinterpreted that to mean we were best friends.”

Buoyed by the compliment, Botti went up to Sinatra after a show and proceeded to pepper him with questions. Sinatra was gracious to his young sideman, but the singer’s people were watching the upstart musician with the eyes of hawks.

“His assistant was like, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t bother Mr. Sinatra so much,’ ” Botti says with a chuckle.

Botti has since met — and befriended — plenty of other famous people. The trumpeter counts among his friends Sting, with whom Botti played and recorded from 1999 to 2001.

“The sophisticated nature of his popular music is very attractive to me,” Botti says.

He credits the Police-frontman-turned-adult-contemporary-music star for really getting his career in gear by putting him before literally thousands of people nightly.

Over the years Botti also has performed and/or recorded with Paul Simon, Buddy Rich, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Joni Mitchell and many others.

The son of a concert pianist mother and an Italian immigrant father who taught both English and Italian, Botti has sold more than 3 million albums to date and is known for bringing jazz to pop audiences and vice versa — in fact, one critic called him a modern-day “Chuck Mangione with better hair.”

He’s had four No. 1 albums on Billboard’s Jazz Albums lists and right now is the biggest selling jazz instrumentalist on Earth.

In February, the self-deprecating frontman and popular sideman finally won a Grammy after being nominated a handful of times. The award came in the Best Pop Instrumental Album category for “Impressions,” a wide-ranging 13-song record that features Andrea Bocelli, Vince Gill, Herbie Hancock, Mark Knopfler, David Foster and Caroline Campbell.

Filled with standards like “What A Wonderful World,” “Summertime” and “Over the Rainbow,” the album is the latest feather in Botti’s much decorated musical cap.

“It’s nice to be acknowledged in that category,” he says of his Grammy. “I just feel happy and very grateful to people who know who I am.”

Gettin’ down in Gresham

Botti credits fellow Oregonian Doc Severinsen, the former “Tonight Show” bandleader, for inspiring him to pick up the trumpet when he was still a wee lad watching late-night TV — although he admits he did wonder from time to time if he should have chosen another instrument.

“Anyone who picks up the trumpet rather than the piano or guitar has to have their head examined,” he says with a laugh.

However, as the years have rolled by, he’s come to realize choosing the horn “has probably been one of my best decisions.”

A turning point in terms of his commitment to the trumpet came when Botti was 12 and he heard Miles Davis’ recording of “My Funny Valentine.” Moved by the jazz master’s interpretation, Botti set out to scale his instrument’s sonic heights. His chops got so good that as a teenager he was selected a member of McDonalds’ All America High School Jazz Band in 1983.

Hungry to become a professional, Botti wanted to move to Portland and fully immerse himself in its thriving jazz scene. He attended Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham from 1980-81, when he was just 17. The young musician studied under Larry McVey, whom he repeatedly credits for nurturing his career, along with Ron Steen, a well-known jazz drummer in Portland. Both men, along with other local jazz figures such as Mel Brown, kindly encouraged and supported his playing, he says, noting he would blow his trumpet in Portland nightclubs when he was still too young to drink in them.

“I’d have to stay on the stage when the band would take a break in the middle of a gig,” he says, adding he couldn’t be near the bar legally.

Old school

Although he’s firmly established as a popular musician now, it’s clear Botti believes he wouldn’t have gotten where he is without hard work. Too many singers and musicians today want to become “overnight successes,” he says, eschewing playing small clubs night after night where they can hone their craft and instead aiming for “American Idol”-type fame via TV. Young performers should take a page from old school performers like Sinatra, he says, who spent years learning how to get an audience on their side.

“It was great to see how he would interact with an audience,” Botti says, noting he even learned from such comedians as Don Rickles how to win over the crowd.

“They had a give-and-take with the audience, and they would actually communicate with them, not only with their songs, but with their banter.”

Indeed, Botti himself has mastered the art of banter, jokingly calling himself “the palest guy to ever play a trumpet,” in concert and making quips in between songs.

He also disdains the use of recorded music that many national acts now incorporate into their live shows.

“You might as well show a painting of yourself and play a record,” he says of such an approach. “If every show is basically the same, it kind of dilutes the whole process of walking onto a stage and giving a live performance.”

As for his latest album, “Impressions,” he says the idea for it grew out of the 2009 CD/DVD “Chris Botti in Boston,” which featured a number of live collaborations with such singers as Steven Tyler and Sting as the Boston Pops backed them. Folks dug how Botti sounded with different singers, so “Impressions” turned into “13 different ways to approach a ballad,” he says.

“The goal was to have one song be completely different from another song.”

Indeed, it’s a wide-ranging record, opening with Chopin’s “Prelude No. 20 in C minor,” and including such pieces as “Tango Suite,” which grew out of a jam session with Hancock following a White House gig and “Per Te, (For You)” a collaboration between Botti and pianist/composer/producer Foster, with lyrics by Tiziano Ferro and sung by Bocelli.

It’s a heady life he leads, with constant touring and recording, but one the trumpeter believes other musicians can have as well as long as they practice, practice, practice.

“I think the fundamentals of any instrument are so important,” he says, telling fellow players to concentrate on scales and tone. “You can learn discipline. You can learn to channel the good things in life.”

To learn more about Chris Botti, visit www.chrisbotti.com.