By Don Huebscher for the Leader-Telegram
Ever since attending “An Evening with Chris Botti” at the Pablo Center at the
Confluence last month to kick off the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, I’ve been
struggling to describe what I and about 800 others witnessed.
As I searched for the right words, I came upon them in a description of
Botti’s incredible show by another person who wrote the following online
after seeing him perform late last year.
“If you have not seen (Botti’s) live performance, you are missing one of my
top three concerts of all time,” the reviewer wrote, “combining Brazilian
guitar, operatic singer, jazz singer and pop, jazz and rock … great songs.”
As I walked out of the two-hour, non-stop show that night, I started asking
myself how in the world Eau Claire was able to land (and afford) a show
filled with such incredible talent, depth and diversity. After looking into it a
bit, I’m still not sure I know for sure, but it definitely was a team effort of
Jazz Festival organizers, the broader UW-Eau Claire campus and all of
those who supported construction of the Pablo Center.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Botti (pronounced Boat-ee), one of the world’s
premier trumpeters, attended Indiana University decades ago with Robert
Baca, artistic director of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and UW-EC director of
jazz studies and professor of trumpet. It also didn’t hurt that pianist
Geoffrey Keezer, an Eau Claire native, toured with Botti for about 10 years.
It also helped that with Baca’s strong recommendation, the board of Eau
Claire Jazz Inc. took a risk and paid a hefty price to bring Botti and his
bandmates to Eau Claire knowing that with an average ticket price of about
$63, breaking even would be no slam dunk.
Fortunately, it worked out, and the big winners were those who attended a
dynamic night of music the quality of which I daresay had never been
witnessed in this city.
“If ever there was a year to take a risk and make a splash with the opening
of the Pablo Center, this was it,” said John Genskow, board president of the
nonprofit Eau Claire Jazz Inc., which works with UW-Eau Claire students to
put on the local Jazz Festival. “A lot of pieces fell into place to make this
Mission accomplished. The crowd became more appreciative and
enthusiastic which each number as Botti trotted out one incredible
entertainer after another to take center stage alongside him. Eau Claire
Jazz Inc. Executive Director Mark Blaskey said my sentiments of Botti’s
show were shared by many people he heard from afterward.
“They were wondering (beforehand), ‘What are we going to see, a trumpet
player standing at the front of the stage?’ ” Blaskey said. “And when they
saw what they saw, the reaction was similar to yours. They were blown
“I spend a lot of time at concerts sitting in the back, and I’m not watching
the artists; I’m watching the reaction of the crowd,” Blaskey added. “And it’s
a great source of pride watching people nodding their heads, tapping their
feet and smiling.”
Botti’s show kicked off a great weekend of music in downtown Eau Claire
that included more than 400 musicians performing with about 60 bands as
part of the growing “52nd Street” event that is a major draw of the festival.
About 2,500 wristbands were sold at $15 each, and combined with
complimentary passes for musicians and sponsors, roughly 3,000 people
mingled through the many venues. Combined with student jazz band
competitions and other headliners Grace Kelly and the New York Voices,
the good times and sweet sounds rolled throughout the weekend.
Now, as they say in show business, what to do for an encore? Not only is
there the challenge of finding and affording talent such as Botti for future
jazz festivals, if that’s even possible, but also growing the local audience for
a genre that is not mainstream and, frankly, not always properly defined,
understood or appreciated.
It’s harder to take financial risks knowing that a mega-talent such as Botti
isn’t well-known enough locally to fill every seat, while country artist Chris
Kroeze of Barron, runner-up last year on NBC’s “The Voice,” quickly sold out
three shows at the Pablo Center in March.
Baca recalled a conversation he had more than 10 years ago with former
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor Brian Levin-Stankevich, who shared Baca’s vision
of expanding the Jazz Festival from the campus to the community but
wasn’t sure the community would support it.
“ ‘You have to convince me what jazz is,’ ” Baca recalls the chancellor telling
him. “ ‘When I think of jazz, it’s two fat sweaty guys playing blues where I
get to listen from five feet away, and I don’t know if I want to see that.’ ”
The genius of Botti, and what Baca stresses, is that jazz is so much more
than that. Botti’s show runs the musical gamut that includes classical,
opera, rock, swing, pop and shades in between all woven into a jazz
framework. Jazz, Baca points out, has influenced every new musical genre
since about 1900.
“We wanted to take our new golden jewel (The Pablo Center) and put
something in there that has never been in our town before who would not
usually come here,” Baca said.
“I think it was a catalyst,” Baca said of Botti’s show. “I would like for him to
come back in a few years and have enough people remember what his
show was like, and bring their friends by word of mouth.”
If that were to happen, I’d be surprised and disappointed if a future Botti
show here didn’t sell out the 1,225-seat Pablo Center. I know that for most
people, $63 or so is pretty steep for a concert ticket, but compared with
how much you’d pay to see the same show in the Twin Cities, plus gas,
parking and food, it’s a bargain. Genskow said he met a woman at Botti’s
show here who came from the Chicago area and told him the cost to see
Botti in the Windy City would have been much higher.
If you need any more convincing that Botti’s visit here was a very special
thing, consider his tour schedule for the coming weeks: May 17-18: Milan;
May 23: London; May 24: Istanbul. That will be followed by nine shows in
Poland and stops in Bucharest, Romania; and Budapest, Hungary. Then it’s
back to New York City for four shows later in June.
Botti also is the largest-selling American instrumental artist since 2004.
He’s been doing what he does for a long time, and few if any do it better.
And to think he performed 10 minutes from my house on April 25. His show
was worth every penny, and all who attended should be grateful to Baca, the
Jazz Festival board, and all those at the university and community who were part of making it happen.
I’m still on a high from Chris Botti’s performance on March 15 with the Baton Rouge Symphony. It was truly a magical night in the Raising Cane’s River Center.
I was a little skeptical of the Irene W. & C.B. Pennington Great Performers in Concert taking place in the cavernous arena (the theater is undergoing renovations), but Botti and his talented band, with the symphony backing them, made it seem intimate — especially when Botti walked into the audience and was joined by talented songstress Sy Smith.
Paula Pennington de la Bretonne, honorary chairwoman of the series, was left speechless when Botti, who was making his third appearance with BRSO, dedicated “Hallelujah” to her. The tears came when Botti and company played the achingly beautiful “Emmanuel,” featuring violinist Ania Filochowska. Opera tenor Rafael Moras gave a goosebump-inducing rendition of “Nessun Dorma.” Some concertgoers, including Paula and Leonard Augustus, were even coaxed onto the dance floor. For major jazz fans, there was Miles Davis’ “Blue & Green.”
The talent Botti has assembled for his latest tour is absolutely fabulous. Aside from Smith and Moras, the group included Brazilian guitarist Leonardo Amuedo, saxophone player Andy Snitzer, pianist Eldar Djangirov, drummer Lee Pearson and bassist Reggie Hamilton. At a post-concert Champagne reception, hosted by Hancock Whitney Bank, sponsors got to meet Botti and his band — a perfect way to end the night!