You have to appreciate jazz trumpet player Chris Botti, the way 100 years ago you would appreciate high-quality vaudeville.
He told the close-to-sellout crowd Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall that he and his group play 300 shows a year. When you think about it, that gives them a tremendous amount of time to polish their shtick to a high gloss. It’s nonstop entertainment.
Botti blows into town every two or three years, so it is to his credit that he never gets boring. Saturday, he changed the mood constantly. As the first number, he and violinist Caroline Campbell took the spotlight for “Concerto de Aranjuez,” as featured by Miles Davis in “Sketches of Spain.” Both were extroverted and evocative. Botti, his toes inches from the edge of the stage, ended it on a long, dramatic, drawn-out note.
After that mellifluous selection came “When I Fall in Love.” The 1990s smooth-jazz standard attained thundering heights of volume that the songwriters almost certainly never intended.
Then came “Emmanuel,” another melodic ballad featuring Botti and Campbell. Laughing in her slinky long gown, she kicked off her shoes before raising her bow.
“After 10 years, you’re finally wearing shoes,” Botti jibed her. “I don’t know why you picked Buffalo to wear shoes.”
Later, Campbell took the stage alone for a solo that could bring to mind heavy metal.
It’s all a show, sure, that they have played hundreds of times before. Even the joke about the shoes was probably rehearsed. But it is so sincere, so polished and so much fun that you can’t resist it. There is so much going on at any one time that it is easy to overlook the orchestra. (Botti was joined by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with Matthew Kraemer on the podium.)
Dapper as ever in his pressed suit and blond, coiffed hair, Botti doesn’t just play, he tells funny stories – about Bill Clinton, for whom he played a private party for about 12 people, and about his friend Sting, with whom he used to perform.
Throughout the night new people kept appearing. If you have seen Botti before you learn to look forward to this. He brought out a wonderful singer, Sy Smith, shortly before intermission. Sporting an Afro and a sultry ’70s-type outfit, Smith exuded confidence and had the audience immediately in the palm of her hand. After intermission, Botti introduced a tenor from Ukraine, George Komsky. He was appealing as he sang “Time To Say Goodbye” – but he was a little subdued. Give him time.
On piano, and this was a treat, he had Geoffrey Keezer. I saw Keezer some time ago when he played the old Calumet Arts Cafe with bassist Ray Brown. He is a fine player and gave Botti clear-cut accompaniment – without scores or lead sheets, too. Perhaps, unfortunately, he is also a modest player. I would have liked to hear more of him. Years ago, he showed he had a wonderful technique. I remember Mark Goldman said, “It’s like listening to Liszt!”
Botti must be fun to work with. The night had a warm vibe. He puts his all into everything he does. He played “Time To Say Goodbye” as if it were taps, with emotion and gravity. He also had a beautiful take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a signature number of his. “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” written by Sting, featured Sy Smith singing in French. Miles Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches” gave everyone in the band a chance to shine. The night went by fast.