It’s June 30, 1998.
We drop the kids off at grandma’s house, and make the 90-minute trip from the Jersey Shore to Glenside, PA, a lovely little village just north of Philadelphia.
There, we arrive at the historic Keswick Theater with tickets in hand to see the jazz supergroup, Fourplay, featuring four virtuoso musicians — guitarist Larry Carlton, keyboardist Bob James, bassist Nathan East, and drummer Harvey Mason.
As we wait for the show to begin, we’re a little disappointed to learn the group we’ve so anxiously been waiting to see won’t be starting the show. Instead, we’ll be listening to a warm-up act — a relatively unknown trumpet player named Chris Botti.
Soon, Botti takes the stage and begins to play.
We are impressed.
His tone is rich and full.
His phrasing and articulation are impeccable.
His musicality is superb.
We love his set and, afterwards, make our way out to the lobby of the Keswick to chat with Mr. Botti. There, we tell him how much we enjoyed his music and ask him to tell us a little about himself.
Chris Botti was born in 1962 in Oregon, but spent several years of his childhood in Italy. His earliest musical influence was his mother, a classically trained pianist and piano teacher. He started learning to play the trumpet at the age of nine, but only became serious with the instrument after hearing Miles Davis’ recording of “My Funny Valentine,” accompanied on the piano by Herbie Hancock.
Following high school, Botti studied music at Indiana University, but he left during his senior year to play as a sideman with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich. He went on to spend a decade working with Paul Simon, and he also accompanied such other great artists as Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell, Roger Daltrey, and more.
And now, with two Verve recordings under his belt — 1995’s First Wish and 1997’s Midnight Without You — Botti is attempting to make it on his own as a headliner.
After getting Chris’ autograph, we’re on our way to enjoying the rest of the concert that night, but — unbeknownst to him at the time — Botti is on his way to jazz stardom when, just months following our meeting, Sting invites Botti to tour with him.
As a result of that relationship — one he credits for changing the arc of his musical career — Botti goes on to create over a dozen popular albums, in addition to several well-received PBS television specials, making him one of the world’s foremost jazz musicians.
Fast forward nearly two decades.
It’s February 16, 2017.
The kids are now grown and we’re making the 90-minute trip from the Jersey Shore to Englewood, NJ, a lovely little village just west of New York City.
There, we arrive at the historic Bergen Performing Arts Center (BergenPAC) with tickets in hand to see jazz superstar, Chris Botti, headliner of his own show filled with an array of virtuoso vocalists and instrumentalists, all handpicked by Botti himself.
Looking impressive in his dark blue suit, Botti opens his show at BergenPAC with a bang, starting with “Gabriel’s Oboe,” the theme from the film, The Mission. As the glorious sound of Botti’s trumpet rises above an ethereal-sounding synthesizer, a violin enters. The talented pair take the melody and shoot it straight through the hearts of the crowd with a triumphant sound that sings to the soul, ultimately ending in a musical prayer that is followed by rousing applause.
Next up for Botti and his band is “Concierto de Aranjuez,” originally created as a classical guitar piece by the Spanish composer, Joaquín Rodrigo. With dramatic flair, all of the accompanying instruments — piano, violin, bowed string bass, percussion, classical guitar, and synthesizer — work together to compliment the soaring line of the trumpet. The music builds, ending with Botti standing as still as a soldier, impressively holding the last note of the piece for moments.
Following vigorous applause, Botti and the group move on to some jazz. While performing Nat King Cole’s “When I Fall in Love,” the melodic tune morphs into a torrid jazz improvisation, rendering the composition nearly unrecognizable as it takes the listener on an incredible journey filled with love for this uniquely American art form called jazz.
Botti steps up to the microphone to welcome the audience, revealing “this is the fourth or fifth time we’ve played here” and calling BergenPAC “a cool little theater.” Acknowledging to the crowd that he and the group “might be a little punchy” because they have been “playing every night since November 27,” Botti goes on to introduce his violinist, Sandy Cameron.
Cameron plays her violin sweetly and soulfully on the next number — Botti’s Grammy-winning arrangement of “Emmanuel.” As her notes swirl through the air, Cameron dances with her violin, bending and stretching as the melody soars.
Soon, it is Botti’s turn to add his rich sound to the collaboration. The two virtuosi play as one, complimenting one another as they create a soundscape which tugs on the hearts of all present and elicits cheers and applause from the excited crowd.
Informing the audience, “Our next song is in the hands of our drummer,” joking that how it will sound tonight “depends on his mood, how much sleep he gets, or if he’s drunk,” Botti goes on to play a lovely version of the jazz standard, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
As the tune opens, the soft swish of brushes on drum skins fills the space under Botti’s meandering trumpet. Once the tempo becomes faster, however, drummer Lee Pearson starts to play with one hand and one stick while pianist Taylor Eigsti takes the spotlight with a rollicking piano solo.
At this point, Pearson performs a shocking drum solo where — one by one — he throws numerous sticks into the air and catches them without missing a beat before Botti comes back in on trumpet to triumphantly conclude the song.
After mentioning a number of “great musicians we’ve lost recently” — notably David Bowie, Prince, and Al Jarreau, who Botti sadly notes, “passed away this week” — with Ben Butler on the guitar, Botti performs a tribute to songwriter Leonard Cohen by performing a marvelous and moving rendition of “Hallelujah.”
Going on to wryly explain to the BergenPAC audience, “I grew up in the jazz capital of the world — Oregon,” Botti explains how much, as a youngster, he loved listening to Miles Davis play the trumpet — notably Miles’ recording of “My Funny Valentine” in which he was accompanied on the piano by Herbie Hancock. He goes on to tell a true story about how he was both humbled and honored when he was asked to play the trumpet on “My Funny Valentine” at the White House for the President of the United States, accompanied by none other than Herbie Hancock on piano.
At this point, Botti and the band launch into a scintillating version of Herbie Hancock’s “Tango Suite,” featuring a percussive bass solo by Richie Goods. Although in this arrangement, Goods starts things off simply with a happy-go-lucky riff, he transforms it into a hardcore jazz improvisation, impressing the crowd and eliciting whoops and hollers from the audience.
On yet another Nat King Cole classic, “For All We Know,” Botti strolls out into the audience, standing in the aisle playing his horn as people wave and take photos and videos of him on their cellphones. As he passes by, one devoted fan in the audience excitedly calls out to him, “I love you, Chris!”
Back on stage, Botti introduces female vocalist Sy Smith, who informs the audience, “I spent many summers in Teaneck, so I love Bergen County.” Botti looks up at the balcony of BergenPAC, and instructs any “young musicians” who happen to be seated there to “come down and take seats in the front.” As the kids make their way over, the group performs a sparkling version of the Burt Bacharach classic “The Look of Love,” Smith impressing the crowd with her lovely Diana-Ross-like tone and an incredible range resembling the likes of Mariah Carey’s.
Reminding the kids — who are now happily seated in the front of the auditorium — to “stay off the internet” and instead, to “come see live music,” Botti invites Sandy Cameron back to the stage to play a classical violin solo which morphs into a earth-shattering rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
As Cameron moves across the stage like a cat, her bow flies over the strings — the music building and building, ultimately skyrocketing into the stratosphere — wowing the crowd and bringing them to their feet.
“And that’s how you play the violin,” states Botti.
Introducing brilliant tenor Rafael Moras, Botti and company perform an outstanding version of Andrea Bocelli’s “ Time to Say Goodbye,” the regal sound of Moras’ rich, full voice filling up the room with incredible sound.
Botti follows this up by inviting two youngsters from the audience — 6-year-old Ariella and 8-year-old Felix — to come up on stage and play percussion as Moras and company perform a stunning rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”
Following this priceless performance, the audience members are, once again, on their feet as everyone — including the children — take well-deserved bows.
Moving on to a little funk, drummer extraordinaire Lee Pearson puts on a tour de force performance on the Botti-penned “Regroovable.” First, he plays with one hand as he simultaneously plays a shaker. Then, he plays with two hands on the drum set. He follows this up by clapping while playing. Ultimately, he blindfolds himself with a towel, and with a stick balanced on his head, he plays behind his back — proving that Pearson is what Botti refers to as an “artiste” beyond compare!
As the audience howls, Botti says, “It’s a party now! Come down in the aisles,” and the delighted audience members eagerly obey. Female vocalist Sy Smith returns to sing a rousing version of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” while the audience cheerfully dances and sings along.
Botti follows this up with what he refers to as some “old-school style” jazz, where he and pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Richie Goods, and drummer Lee Pearson transform the BergenPAC auditorium into a “dingy nightclub at four in the morning.” Here, they play a smoky rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You.”
Ending with a lovely and poignant version of “My Funny Valentine” — featuring only acoustic piano and trumpet — Botti sends the crowd home rejuvenated and reinvigorated, one unnamed audience member saying it all when, at the end of Botti’s performance, he utters a declarative and passionate, “YES!”