Trumpet sensation Chris Botti has fans all over the world. Apparently, some of his most ardent listeners live in Poland, a place that's never been known as a cool jazz hot spot.
"I first went to Poland in 2000 as part of Sting's Brand New Day Tour," says Botti, who's in town this weekend to present a pops concert with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. "I was amazed at how warm and gracious everyone there was. So Poland has become a top priority for me, and I've been back 13 times since my first visit."
Botti's penchant for Poland at least partly explains why his new album opens with an orchestral arrangement of Chopin's Prelude in C minor. Several years ago, the trumpeter was commissioned to record a version of this dark, elegiac prelude to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the legendary Polish composer's birth. But Botti's scheduled 2010 performance in Warsaw quickly took on a deeper meaning.
"In April 2010, a plane carrying the Polish president [Lech Kaczynski] and dozens of his top political and military aides crashed, killing everybody," says Botti. "It was an emotionally wrenching and traumatic experience for the whole country. I began looking at the Chopin recording as being part of the healing process."
Botti is endowed with serious classical chops, so it's not surprising to find him doing justice to Chopin. But the classics were hardly this Oregon native's first love. Born in Portland in 1962, he began taking trumpet lessons at age 9. His first epiphany occurred three years later, when he heard Miles Davis' recording of "My Funny Valentine." "I knew at that instant that I wanted to be a jazz musician," Botti says.
Shortly thereafter, Botti discovered Davis' 1964 album with Herbie Hancock, Four & More, which offered another revelation. "Listening to that album, I discovered how exciting live performances could be," he says.
By the time he was in his early 20s, Botti had already played with such jazz icons as Woody Shaw. So he decided to try his luck in New York City. He moved there in 1985 and found that the city had already fallen completely under the spell of another Young Turk trumpeter.
"I moved to New York at exactly the time Wynton Marsalis exploded onto the scene," says Botti, whose sense of awe and envy of the New Orleans phenom remains undiminished after nearly three decades. "I knew there was no way I was ever going to be able to compete with him as a straight-ahead jazz player. I was going to have to do something else."
So Botti headed into the recording studio, where he quickly became an in-demand session player. But he wasn't playing jazz. It was pop. He began recording with the likes of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Thomas Dolby. He also played with Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra.
His big break finally came in 1990, when Paul Simon took him on the road. "There's a misconception of what it takes to be a professional musician," Botti says. "You have to learn how to put together a band, how to tour, how to fill time between songs onstage. They don't teach you that stuff in music school, but I learned it from Paul Simon."
Simon taught Botti how to be a musician. Sting guided him through the delicate process of becoming a celebrity. Botti joined Sting's Brand New Day Tour in 1999 and received a crash course on how to be a rock star. "Sting really became my best friend and mentor, and the lessons he gave me were not just about music but about life," Botti says. "From practicing yoga to engaging in meet-and-greets, I learned it all from Sting."
The fact that he kind of looked like Sting — along with his newfound ability to stand on his head and meditate — helped propel Botti's career.
Botti had already released his debut album, First Wish, by the time he joined Sting. After emerging as a star in his own right, he began recording new albums. Only now, such celebrities as Yo-Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, John Mayer and Josh Groban were appearing as his guests. And what musician wouldn't want to be associated with Botti? After all, the guy was routinely making People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People edition. And he was dating beautiful, famous women, such as CBS News anchor Katie Couric.
Naturally, the most high-profile gigs came with the fame. But one such invitation gave him pause. That's when the White House asked him to perform for then-President George W. Bush. None of Botti' celebrity friends liked Bush, and all of them were giving him grief about his scheduled concert. Couric finally settled the matter, reminding the trumpeter that he wasn't playing for Bush, but rather for the office of the president.
A second presidential invitation went down more smoothly, in part because there was a new incumbent — Barack Obama. But Botti was also thrilled to learn the concert would include Hancock.
The occasion was a state dinner honoring the president of China, and Botti was asked to join Hancock in a performance of "My Funny Valentine." Davis' recording of that song had convinced Botti 36 years earlier to become a jazz musician. "None other than Herbie Hancock asked me how I wanted to play 'My Funny Valentine,' " Botti says gleefully. "I said, 'How do you think I want to play it? I want to play it like Davis.' "
The performance went so well that Botti's producer, Bobby Colomby, suggested Hancock appear on the trumpeter's new album, Impressions. Botti spent an afternoon improvising at Hancock's house, and together they produced a sensuous and mellifluous tune called "Tango Suite," which appears on the album.
Like other Botti recordings, Impressions features a parade of guest stars. The viscous sound of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli is included on an original song called "Per Te (For You)." Pianist David Foster accompanies Botti on an effective arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime," while vocalist Mark Knopfler croons his way through "What a Wonderful World."
Arguably the biggest guest star on Impression is Nashville's own Vince Gill, who gives a deeply felt rendition of Randy Newman's "Losing You." Botti's concert with the Nashville Symphony doesn't list any celebrity guests. Still, people who come to Thursday's concert may recognize a familiar face.
"There may be a famous singer onstage," Botti says.