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Botti Brings Great Jazz and Prompts Respect at Mondavi Finale

By L. PIERCE CARSON, Napa Valley Register

Spending 300 days on the road each year doesn’t leave a lot of time for much else.

Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti (pronounced ‘bohti’) wouldn’t have it any other way. He loves performing for music lovers the world over.
Botti and a band of inspired musicians will be touring both South Africa and Australia for the first time this year.
“You’d be surprised how many (successful) musicians aren’t known outside this country,” the lanky, blond, blue-eyed 47-year-old musician said while warming up for his third appearance at the Robert Mondavi Winery Saturday night.

Botti and band will be on tour through early spring next year and then, and only then, will the popular jazz artist take time from the road to work on a new recording. At this point, he’s just not sure what tack the new CD will take.

“I’m just happy to be working,” he declared, “grateful for being able to go into so many different parts of the world. We’ll also be touring Asia and this will be my seventh appearance in Poland.” He’ll also have stops in both London and Berlin, another cross-country tour and a two-week holiday run at the famed Blue Note in New York’s Greenwich Village at the end of the year. He’ll return to the Bay Area in September for a show at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, he told last weekend’s sell-out crowd of 1,400-plus at the landmark Oakville winery.
Saturday’s performance was the second Botti and company had offered in the Napa Valley in the span of a week. Last weekend, they were featured on the bill for the 125th anniversary celebration of Far Niente Winery, along with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. In fact, Thibaudet stuck around this past week to perform at Festival del Sole dates throughout the valley and came to Saturday’s Mondavi event, which was featured as a Festival del Sole offering.

Coming to prominence with the 2001 recording of the “Night Sessions” CD, Botti has established a reputation as a versatile musician in both jazz and pop music for his ability to fuse both styles together. His PBS television programs and brilliant recordings, as well as frequent appearances in concert halls, have made Botti a household name.

Botti appeared here as well at Lincoln Theater two years ago with an outstanding group of musicians in tow. Back with Botti Saturday night was consummate pianist Billy Childs, who has arranged material for such artists as Sting, Gladys Knight, Michael Bublé and Dianne Reeves, with whom he last appeared here at the Mondavi summer festival. While the Grammy Award-winner is a significant jazz voice, he was on restricted duty the other night as he had injured a hand. Taking the lead on keyboards in various band jams was another top-flight keyboardist, Geoffrey Keezer.

Also returning was guitarist Mark Whitfield, a remarkable improviser. A student of the Wes Montgomery/George Benson school of jazz guitar, Whitfield was discovered by Benson and launched his solo career more than two decades ago. Whitfield has a brilliant melodic sense and chops to match. His extended solo on Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” made the blood run hot.

Equally talented string player Carlos Enrique, a relative newcomer, gave the evening’s repertoire a lot of funky bottom, whether Enrique was playing standup or electric bass.

One of the world’s elite drummers, Billy Kilson is also a member of Botti’s musical posse. Kilson demonstrated speed, dexterity and a playful mood the other night. Botti brands Kilson as the world’s best “bad ass” drummer. Few would argue with that assessment after taking in Saturday’s concert.

Lucia Micarelli is back on the tour, Botti noted, after recovering remarkably from an almost devastating hand injury. She’s an exceptional violinist who traded leads with Botti on Ennio Morricone’s haunting “Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso.”

Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer (“How Can I Ease the Pain?”) provided distinguished, memorable interpretations of standards, such as “The Very Thought of You,” and displayed a funky, playful side with Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” She’s a great addition to the lineup.
Additional highlights included a silky arrangement by Botti and Whitfield of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a rip-roaring arrangement of “Indian Summer” that closed the choice second set.

Botti’s two hour show was remarkable for a couple of reasons. Of course, we were awed by the incredible talent on display.
But there was also another notable element that has been missing at Mondavi for some time now. It was the sound of respect. When the headliner played a quiet note, took a necessary breath, or his outstanding vocalist whispered a familiar lyric, we could hear, we could relate. You could hear the proverbial pin drop. This was a crowd that had come to listen to the music, not to impress one another with recent exploits. This was a crowd showing respect to those around them, not the bunch of rowdies that’ve shown up for once-upon-a-time nightclub acts, dance bands and blowzy has-bands we’ve come to accept in recent Mondavi seasons.

Would that we could return to this caliber of concert and audience a couple of times each season at least. Well, hope springs eternal.