It’s been 25 years since jazz trumpeter Chris Botti played the Tacoma Dome. Since that gig with Paul Simon in 1991, Botti has forged a superstar career, collaborating with the likes of Sting and Plácido Domingo, and winning a Grammy. This weekend, Botti will play with Symphony Tacoma, returning to the Dome in a concert that fuses jazz and classical with his unique singing style.
Botti talked to The News Tribune from his Portland home about just how he makes his fusion style work, what it takes to be one of the nation’s best trumpeters and why you shouldn’t walk in late to his show.
Q: What do you like about playing with an orchestra compared to just your band?
A: We do so many different orchestras around the world, and it’s awesome just to stand in front of that large group. It’s the ultimate framework for real instruments. We spend a lot of time and energy working on arrangements, so it sounds good. It’s just really fun.
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Q: How do you choose classical pieces that will work well for a jazz treatment, like the Chopin Prelude No. 20 on your “Impressions” album?
A: To use the word “classical” is generous — I’m a jazz player, really. I’m not the guy who’ll go up there and play the Haydn trumpet concerto. My strength is in the bel canto range of the trumpet, like Andrea Bocelli and Plácido Domingo. I utilize that part. We also carry a concert violinist with us, so we can cross those borders and not be called out as a fraud. I’m kind of morphing it.
Q: After three decades of a solo career, is there anything you still feel you have to work on in your playing?
A: Oh, goodness gracious — every single day. I just practiced about four hours today. The trumpet is not an instrument you can walk away from if you want to be successful.
Q: So, specifically, what do you work on most? Tone, embouchure, breath control?
A: All of that. ... Then, you add content to your vocabulary, which takes months and months for the smallest progress to be made. You have maybe six months where nothing changes, then you get something. It goes in notches — it’s not a crescendo. It’s like, frustration, frustration, then a breakthrough.
Q: You did a concert last October in Washington, D.C., where the reviewer was really taken by how you interacted with the audience. You were asking students to come down and take empty front row seats, you were calling out latecomers and telling them what they missed. Why do you do that? How important is the audience to you?
A: One of the first gigs I ever played was with the Frank Sinatra band when I was 21. Not only did he sing so well, have this greatness, this rock star thing and all that, but he’d talk to the audience. He was fun, entertaining and artistically great. When I saw him onstage, he’d be chatting in this old-school way.
This generation is so scripted, with concerts. You have the backing tracks, the dancers, the screens. There’s not a lot of interaction. That’s a lost thing. And fans like it. I really mean talking, not just “thank you, here’s the next song.” If someone walks in late, I’ll talk about that. If the band makes a mistake, I’ll talk about that. It lets the audience in on what’s going on onstage.
Q: Who or what has been your biggest musical influence?
A: Definitely, when I was 12, I heard Miles Davis play, and that triggered my commitment to the trumpet. But whatever triggers that drive is the single biggest factor to being successful. There are so many obstacles to being a successful musician. You have to have a huge drive. And I do.
Q: Has it really been 25 years since you played the Tacoma Dome?
A: Yes. I’m a jazz act, and it’s so big. But playing there with Paul Simon’s band in 1991 was real fun. I’d never stood in an arena before, and it was a legendary band with musicians from the West Indies, Jamaica, all over.