He embodied the music - seemingly gliding onto the stage at New York's Beacon Theater two autumns ago. A mix of traditional and smooth jazz performers with Joe Sample and David Sanborn as the headliners, the show was a good one. And trumpeter Chris Botti, the smooth operator, was a highlight, giving the house Miles Davis-like flava in tone (cool and haunting) and stage presence (aloof and self-possessed in an elegant black suit).
On stage - and it is true with many jazz cats - Chris' playing is far more spirited and adventurous than on record. But seeing him live is one thing, slipping on one of his CDs at the crib is another.
"I like making albums that chill people out," says Chris, who's calling from a recording studio in Los Angeles. He plays the Capitol Jazz Festival Saturday afternoon. "But I'm always pushing the music in different ways on each album."
His latest is A Thousand Kisses Deep, a soothing 11-cut set. But underneath the atmospheric synths and vocals (courtesy of Chantal Kreviazuk on "The Look of Love" and Bridget Benenate on "Ever Since We Met"), the rhythm throbs harder than it did on 2001's critically well-received Night Sessions - making the songs more immediate. But please know this: A Thousand Kisses Deep - well, any Chris Botti album for that matter - is strictly mood music: gauzy, a little sultry and slightly formulaic.
Now, I'm not gonna lie: I generally dismiss "smooth jazz." Much of it is just instrumental pop and R&B and nauseatingly boring. (With no real improvisation going on, can you even call much of it jazz?) But there are times (usually after midnight; I hardly ever sleep) when I don't mind soft, unobtrusive music lingering through my apartment as I burn the opium incense I love. And, hey, if I'm gonna listen to smooth jazz, it may as well be Chris Botti. He's one of the best players in the genre.
Rising above the pop elements and one-stroke beat of the music, his horn blooms gorgeously. There's a sensual, vocal-like quality to Chris' playing. It's about tone, attitude, intelligence, and you must have soul if you're trying to make a sincere connection with the listener. Chris, who has practiced his trumpet five to six hours a day since he was 9 years old, knows all about that. Even when the music underneath sounds contrived, Chris' playing on top never feels that way. Early last year, he bought a rare 1940 Martin trumpet, the kind Miles used on Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue. With a slightly larger bell, the instrument produces an inviting, warm sound.
"On the trumpet, it's hard to get that soft, beautiful sound," says the musician, who has toured with such pop luminaries as Sting and Paul Simon. "It's such a strained instrument, and people push a nasally sound out of it. I work to get a floating sound."
A yoga enthusiast, Chris says the practice "helps with my breathing for one thing. But it affects so many areas of you the more you do it. The peace, the centeredness comes through the music."
The Oregon native, who divides his time between New York and L.A., was recently named one of People magazine's 50 most beautiful people. He deserves it: a tall, lean man with refined features the camera loves. Although he was initially "embarrassed" by making the list because his friends teased him about it, Chris understands the importance of image in pop culture - and in jazz.
"Players I admire like Miles Davis and Chet Baker were very aware of their image," he says. "I wouldn't have been in that issue of People if I didn't play the trumpet. It was an opportunity for People to open up people to those of us who do other things. [The magazine] usually focuses on actors and Hollywood. It's rare that instrumentalists get in a publication like People."
Chris is working on an album of standards, which he will record live in the studio with an orchestra. The project is scheduled for fall release.
"We're not worried about locking a particular rhythm on this album," he says. "We're just playing beautiful melodies."
And those never grow old.
Chris Botti plays the 12th Annual Capitol Jazz Festival at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, Saturday. The show starts at noon. Tickets are $41.50-$158 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.