Impressions, trumpeter Chris Botti's new Columbia Records CD, is the latest in a stellar parade of albums -- starting with 2004's When I Fall In Love and continuing with To Love Again, Italia and the CD/DVD Chris Botti In Boston - that have firmly established him as the world's largest selling jazz instrumentalist. Add to that a cluster of Grammy nominations and three number one albums on Billboard's Jazz Albums listings.
As he began his planning for the new album, he was determined to do some "familiar songs" for Impressions, songs that reached back to his fascination with the melody and balladry that have been essential to his music since he first picked up a trumpet.
Songs such as "What A Wonderful World,' "Summertime" and "Over the Rainbow" certainly fulfill that desire. But the album's far-ranging program also encompasses many other areas, deeply influenced by conversations he had with fans during the busy, world-wide touring that keeps him on the road as much as 300 days a year.
"People kept mentioning Chris Botti In Boston," he recalls. "They loved the music in that program. But they talked a lot about the variety among the performers, too - Yo Yo Ma, Steven Tyler, Sting, John Mayer, Josh Groban."
Unlike the Boston album, however, Impressions was planned as a studio recording rather than a concert performance. So Botti and his manager/producer Bobby Colomby, put together a wish list of possible guest artists. The game plan: to match the variety in music and performers present in Chris Botti In Boston. But to do so in a very different way. At the top of the wish list, the legendary rocker from the band Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler.
"We had the idea," says Botti, "of asking Mark to sing ‘What A Wonderful World.' How much more different could we get than that?"
When Knopfler, who rarely sings songs by other writers, agreed to do the tune, the first important piece of the album was in place. Others quickly followed, some from unlikely sources.
Botti had been commissioned to do his version of Chopin's Prelude No. 20 in C minor, and perform it in Warsaw for the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. Always intrigued by the opportunity to take a classical work and, as he explains it, "play with the time, move things around," Botti accepted the commission. "And I immediately realized," he adds, "that Prelude could be the starting point for Impressions, as well.
Another serendipitous event - a concert at the White House - added a completely unexpected composition to the program. After he performed with pianist Herbie Hancock at the event, a state dinner for the President of China, Colomby suggested they compose a piece together. An afternoon of free improvising at Hancock's house resulted in Tango Suite. And Hancock's presence as a guest on the album.
A similar afternoon of creative compatibility - this time between Botti and pianist/composer/producer David Foster, with lyrics by Tiziano Ferro - produced "Per Te." Sung by the incomparable tenor of Andrea Bocelli, it already sounds like a classic.
Country star Vince Gill, doing Randy Newman's "Losing You," was another of the album's featured artists, his conversational, story-telling style adding more of the variety that Botti and Colomby were slowly accumulating for the album.
At the suggestion of arranger Mendoza, Colomby brought Brazilian guitarist Leonardo Amuedo to the studio, a further vital element was added. "We'd heard a lot of other guitar players, and liked everything they did," says Botti. "But as soon as we heard Leo, we just started replacing all the guitar parts we'd already recorded. His beautiful, nylon classic Spanish guitar sound is all over this record." And especially present in Brazilian songwriter Ivan Lins' lovely "Setembro," the soaring lines of Rodrigo's "En Aranjuez Con Tu Amor," "Over the Rainbow" and the contemplative Botti/Amuedo duet interpretation of R. Kelly's "You Are Not Alone," a hit for Michael Jackson.
Three other pieces brought more of the variety Botti was seeking. "Oblivion" is an Astor Piazolla tango, originally written for a chamber ensemble, here a romantic vehicle for Botti's trumpet. "Sevdah," with its cinematic Eastern European qualities and dramatic choral climax offers yet another hue to Impressions' many musical colors. And "Contigo en La Distancia" adds the rich sensuality of a Cuban bolero.
As the songs began to accumulate, producer Colomby insisted on maintaining an open-minded receptivity, eager to allow the creative process leeway to produce the best possible results.. ‘His attitude," says Botti, "was that it would be okay to record 19 songs even if we only used 13. That's the way it turned out, and it was the right way to do it."
Botti seemed destined to become a musician -- and even to become the kind of musician he is today -- almost from the very beginning. Born in Portland, Oregon, he was encouraged to pursue music by his mother, a concert pianist. He also had an early taste of the international world that would become his primary territory as a successful performing artist. His father, who is Italian, taught English and Italian languages, and he took the family to live in Italy for several years, beginning when Botti was in the first grade.
"I was speaking fluent Italian before we came back," he recalls. "But, sadly, I've forgotten most of it."
That he still feels a firm connection with his Italian roots, however, was fully manifest in the title song he composed, with David Foster, for the album, Italia.
A different, but equally significant connection took place when Botti was twelve, and he heard Miles Davis play "My Funny Valentine." The impact it had not only persuaded him to make a life time commitment to the trumpet, it also launched the affection for melody, space and balance that have been intrinsic aspects of Botti's musical vision.
After attending Indiana University, and studying with the highly regarded jazz educator David Baker, the great trumpet teacher Bill Adam, jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw and jazz saxophonist George Coleman, he moved to New York in the mid-‘80s.
His early career was spent crafting his skills in settings reaching from the Buddy Rich Big Band and Frank Sinatra to Natalie Cole and Joni Mitchell. Throughout the ‘90s and into the new century, Botti played extensively with Paul Simon, and had an especially creative association with Sting.
Those gigs - and those relationships - were, he says, powerful learning experiences.
"Watching artists like Sting and Paul and Joni Mitchell," explains Botti, "how they get in and out of songs, how they introduce people, whether they would do this or that sort of thing, what they would say about one of their players. All that was a huge asset for me. I wouldn't be the performer I am today without that background."
Now a major artist in his own right, performing worldwide, selling more than three million albums, he has found a form of creative expression that begins in jazz and expands beyond the limits of any single genre. With Impressions and the albums that preceded it, Chris Botti has thoroughly established himself as one of the important, innovative figures of the contemporary music world.