That Chris Botti and his jazz ensemble played on the coldest night this year, thus far, did not go unnoticed. The world-famous trumpeter touched down for a repeat performance with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday night, just in time for Valentine’s weekend.
Jazz, at its best, is hot and cold in the same breath, but never lukewarm. Passionate, flaming, regretful and reserved, maybe; indifferent, not so much. Botti’s program, with a huge and heavy lift from his touring group, hit these necessary nerves with ease and comfort, sometimes too comfortably.
Botti’s popularity is a mixed bag, too. First, he is an unquestionably talented trumpeter and musician. He plays an instrument not immediately adored in most households, but which can be fashionably bent in directions both romantic and aggressive. Second, at 53, Botti’s boyish looks are still attractive to a – going out on a limb here – largely maternal audience. And thirdly, ever the entertainer, the guy knows how to blend those two facts into a highly marketable package; he is as smart about selling his talent as he is honing his skill. Can’t blame the guy.
What we get is a suave and manicured program, besotted with the standards that have for generations enshrined vocalists and instrumentalists in the halls of mainstream adoration. (Think, if Josh Groban played trumpet.) Botti’s prolific relationship with Sting is a remarkable one, the two collaborating many times and surely expanding each other’s sonic planes.
Saturday night’s gig ventured into various corners of his expansive vocabulary, venturing briefly – and not too impressively – into classical before settling at home with a string of jazz hits.
Those classical pieces felt incongruous with the orchestra, conducted by Morihiko Nakahara. Their voices were at odds with each other, with neither being incorrect, either. On faster, improvisational jazz numbers, Botti’s flair for flare is a thing of wonder, an enterprising toddler on the prowl for his next snack. On slower, contemplative pieces, especially those that lean more classical, that focus isn’t as clear.
It may not all be in his horn or embouchure, though. A noticeable reverb on Botti’s amplification was much too distracting and rarely supportive. (Think, if Barbara Walters’ camera lens played trumpet.) The trumpet is capable of echoing hollowness, better than most horns; its loneliness is indelible, and needs no special effect. From my middle-balcony seat, this was a turnoff. Too much style can ruin a good thing.
When balance found its place in the program, the place lit up.
Botti’s ensemble is really something else. He travels with them about two-thirds, or more, of the year, and it shows. They’re good. Like, really good. I’m ashamed to say this – sorry, Buffalo – but I didn’t need the orchestra for this program; Botti’s ensemble took the cake and ran with it.
Taylor Eigsto, at only 30, is prodigious on the piano. As Botti pointed out, he’s one to watch. (“And he looks like Bradley Cooper,” said Botti, ever mindful of the visuals.) Eigsto, along with bassist Richie Goods and drummer Lee Pearson form a hungry trio. Guitarist Ben Butler, whose solo on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” brought great range to the table. Cohen’s song might be the most covered song in the history of YouTube and karaoke – rather, Jeff Buckley’s ghostly, definitive cover of it – and this addition is nothing special. But it plays well enough, sanitized as it is.
Sy Smith entered late in the evening’s first half, adding a sublime vocal to “The Look of Love” and others. Smith’s instrument is a fine pairing to Botti’s horn; both know when to blast and when to simmer. Violinist Lucia Micarelli joined Botti in barefoot for their duet of “Emmanuel,” the recording of which was made popular on his 2009 live album, “Chris Botti in Boston.”
A fine evening of performances all around.
Chris Botti with the BPO
Saturday night in Kleinhans Music Hall