Chris Botti & Friends,
Night Sessions: Live in Concert
(Columbia, 2002)

In the press release that accompanies this concert DVD, a critic calls young trumpeter Chris Botti "visually charismatic, musically engaging and appealingly personable." After watching this 85-minute concert, I guess I'd have to observe that it all depends on where you're sitting.

Botti has been compared to Chet Baker, but the comparison should extend only as far as soft good looks and sweet, limpid tone. In the brief interviews that accompany the concert, Botti admits that the Night Sessions tracks are "instrumental pop music," or "music to shag to," and he's got that right. He's one of a line of pop trumpet players that has included Chuck Mangione, Herb Alpert, Al Hirt and, in his later years, Maynard Ferguson. And like those worthies, there's not much depth or importance to any of Botti's music. It's my guess that his non-aggressive blandness will appeal more to the female younger set, or the PBS types who gobble up Yanni, John Tesh and Charlotte Church during pledge week, but, after all, their numbers are considerable.

They should respond nicely to Botti. He has a soft, clear trumpet tone, but it's seldom delivered to any particular emotional purpose. The tunes vary between slow-tempo, late night bluesy-wispy tone poems and funky grooves, never coming close to pushing any musical envelopes. You've heard its inoffensive but unmemorable kin on countless smooth jazz stations.

The musicians with whom Botti has surrounded himself prove no challenge to him. Bassist Jon Ossman's solos consist of repeatedly fast repetitions of the same note (which the undemanding crowd seemed to enjoy) or by-the-book lines that show no knowledge of the past existence of Jaco Pastorius, let alone such contemporary bass gods as Victor Wooten (or maybe it's just that Botti's music doesn't demand anything beyond what's here). While many guitarists make it look easy, Shane Fontayne works up a sweat grinding out fairly pedestrian lines. Drummer Karen Teperberg provides solid backing throughout and actually shines on her single solo, the only example of rhythmic complexity in the entire evening. Percussionist Everett Bradley is so far back in the audio mix it's tough to hear him, and keyboardists Harvey Jones and guest Jason Rebello add little with their predictable meanderings.

The vocal guests don't bring much to the party either. Sting (in whose band Botti has played) does a wince-worthy version of "In the Wee Small Hours" that is both out of his range and beyond his vocal chops, and sings his own "Moon Over Bourbon Street," in which he sinks himself by doing a feeble Louis Armstrong impersonation. Shawn Colvin is tripped up by the musically dull Sting original she's saddled with, as well as some continuity problems in the editing, in which her hands magically jump back and forth on the mike stand, making one wonder if this concert was assembled from several different takes. It would have been easy enough to cover with cutaways. She fares little better with her own "The Facts About Jimmy."

There are some other technical gaffes, such as the one at 36:46, where Botti removes the trumpet from his lips, but the tone keeps coming out (or just tricky sampling? You be the judge!), and, starting at 37:08, the notes we hear from the trumpet on the soundtrack don't match Botti's fingering. Such technical flaws give the impression that you're hearing a studio recording as opposed to a live performance, which isn't helped by the fact that you won't often hear applause after solos, although you see the crowd clapping (most evident during the tune, "Why Not"). This may have been a conscious decision to keep the music more intact, but it detracts from the presence, since there is no ambient room sound whatsoever during most of the musical numbers.

This clean but sterile sound infuses the entire proceedings. When it's time for Botti to tell his story, the story is only, "I'm feeling sad," "I'm feeling funky" or "I'm feeling groovy." There's little nuance or sophistication here.

The extras are minimal: mini-interviews with Botti, Sting and Colvin, a short Q&A with Botti, a photo gallery with some shirtless shots of the trumpeter (in a possible attempt to bolster the flawed Chet Baker link) and an audio-only recording of "Through an Open Window."

In the Q&A, Botti says that his music is "really meant to just chill you out," and if that's all you're looking for, this DVD should do the trick. There's nothing here that makes any demand on the listener. Botti's tone is pretty, his manner non-threatening and his looks are puffily cute. There's a lot worse music out there, but there's also a whole lot better.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 16 November 2002

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