“The title ‘Vol. 1’ is slightly sarcastic,” says Chris Botti on a call from Palm Springs. “But it seemed like a good launching-off point. It’s my first record for the iconic and wonderful Blue Note record label. Plus, I love those Tony Bennett and Bill Evans records. Can I do, say Vol. 2 or 3 with the same sort of team, in the same sort of way?”
Following up Botti’s last studio album, the Grammy-winning “Impressions“, would pose no easy task. The trumpeter is used to layered orchestral projects that feature several arrangers, and sit in a sweet spot between classical, pop and jazz. But with the world finally opening up again after the pandemic, hitting reset actually seemed like a very natural thing to do.
“I really wanted to limit the grandiose string parts, and make a record that’s a bit looser than what I’d usually make. When there’s big orchestras and lots of arrangements, it’s just not as easy to try stuff out.”
So Botti spent three days in a room with members of the band, throwing around ideas. “We originally wanted to do one of my favourite Paul Simon songs, ‘American Tune’, and it just didn’t work. But on a dime we were able to turn around and try ‘Fix You,’ which worked great. In the past, we’d have to get all these new arrangements, and it’d take up so much time. With this album there was much more freedom. I loved that real jazz feeling, just trying things out that I like.”
The album takes some cues from Keith Jarrett’s “The Melody At Night, With You”, and Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny’s “Beyond The Missouri Sky.” Wrestling back some control from arrangers and taking more of a hands on approach has led to a more authentic and unapologetic mood to the album, Botti admits. “I always loved that sedate feel, and the tones are also so perfect, so minimalist in their own way.”
This sedate feel and cinematic mood is particularly evident on producer David Foster’s contributions on piano, which appear on the intro to “Danny Boy“, as well as bookending “Someday My Prince Will Come“.
“Those are some stark chords that David plays, it’s almost like Chopin,” says Botti. “Nothing like what a regular jazz musician would play as an intro to a song. It’s just so different, I love that!”
Foster’s dramatic spin adds a character that you just don’t normally find on a jazz record. It was also Foster’s first time overseeing the production on one of Botti’s albums, and it made a marked difference.
“It’s interesting, all the jazz musicians in the band, I know them. It was David who was the wild card. He’d lay down these simple but powerful chords, but they were all so dialed into it! Not everything has to be like Red Garland, it can also be stately. David definitely has a certain way of playing, he likes to hear the register of the piano. He’s got his own pop language, you know?“
The combination of Foster’s experience and Botti’s willingness to experiment meant the unusual approach paid off. But Botti still wanted “Vol. 1“ to be a jazz album. So he also brought in pianists Esteban Castro and Taylor Eigsti, alongside drum maestro Vinnie Colaiuta. On top of that, there was also space for some guests from outside the jazz world, such as virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, and singer-songwriter John Splithoff.
“I’m really proud to have Joshua Bell on ‘My Funny Valentine,’“ Botti reveals. “The way that track’s set up, you don’t really expect what’s coming with the violin. It just comes out of far field! The interplay between the instruments is really fantastic.”
That interplay and the chemistry between the band was top priority. “We began every morning like clockwork, and before anything we‘d play “Blue In Green,“ says Botti. “That set the vibe. We got the old Telefunken 251 microphones from Ocean Way Studios, which were used by Sinatra, and Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. Those mics going through a plate reverb – that’s all you need, you don’t need anything else!“
It’s that stripped-down, spacious sound that listeners will find throughout “Vol. 1”, and people who appreciate Botti’s music will find plenty to love. At the same time, it’s peppered with enough surprises to feel different – classic with a twist.
“It’s always been a goal of mine to make something that can just sit there,” admits Botti. “Like Sade’s ‘Lovers Rock’, it just sets a room in a vibe. The same with ‘The Melody At Night, With You’, it sits there and tugs at the heart – it’s just otherworldly. If I can get my trumpet and my craft to sound even close to that, then I‘m happy.”
Max Cole is a writer and music enthusiast based in Düsseldorf, who has written for record labels and magazines such as Straight No Chaser, Kindred Spirits, Rush Hour, South of North, International Feel and the Red Bull Music Academy.
Header photo: Randall Slavin