‘Inevitably in jazz films there occurs one scene of almost mindless fatuity.
It is the one where the band plays [a concert] to a gang of usually rich squares in some high falutin venue… At first they are hostile to the music, but soon it begins to work on them. First they nod and smile at each other, ‘doing’ surprise and dawning appreciation as only Hollywood extras can. Then you get a shot of elegantly shod feet beginning to tap to the music. Finally this audience of palpable mutton-heads throws discretion to the winds and claps heartily to the beat.’
– from The Bluffer’s Guide: Bluff Your Way In Folk & Jazz (Peter Williams, 1969)
And so it came to be, life imitating art…
In the week leading up to Chris Botti’s show at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Monday night, I came across very few people who, not unlike myself, had actually ever heard of this jazz musician. Yet Botti can boast a career that now spans well over two decades; he has had multi-millions of album sales around the world, and he has graced stages and recordings with such luminary talents as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Michael Buble, Steven Tyler, Sting, Lady Gaga, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Yo-Yo Ma and a multitude of others.
I had no idea of what to expect from this concert experience – having been told simply he was a pop/jazz horn player.
I feared, in my ignorance, at worst, a night of elevator music, Kenny G style.
Or maybe even worse – my unattuned ear may simply hear a cacophony of overly-complex jazz rhythms, odd time signatures and unaccented beats, a barrage of awkwardly flattened thirds and sevenths amongst the inevitable discordant brassy squeals and squonks. Where, no doubt, whilst the hepcats would all be high on musical adrenaline, the uninitiated – like me – would be squirming uncomfortably in their seats – lost, confused and possibly headache ridden.
So, in preparation for the show I did my homework and read up on what to expect from serious jazz, memorising the lessons set out in The Bluffer’s Guide (quoted above) as a guide as to the criteria for judging a serious jazz show:
- ‘The jazz musician is a serious artist and consequently cannot have the standards which apply to mere mortals applied to him.’
- ‘’[As] it is well known that the public do not understand the music; the jazzman is a kind of outcast, so who can blame him if he reacts to the stigma in an extreme kind of way.’
Ah ha! I duly prepared for a night of cool indifference flowing from the stage.
- ‘Many jazzmen – including some greats – have been, and are, anti-social ratbags of the first order, and can be dismissed as such.’
OK, cool. Permission to be dismissive locked away…
- ‘The frown is the expression most often worn by the listening jazz fan. Most, for example…frown upon high frivolity.’
So, remember not to smile during the performance. The performance must obviously be a cerebral, intellectual experience and not one that should felt emotionally, or physically at the gut level. Check.
- ‘Never laugh or talk when a jazz performance is underway. You can clap, or even huzzah at the end of a performance or at the end of a solo, but any action in the middle which does not bespeak total raptness is sure to meet with great displeasure.’
Again, duly warned.
So, as the lights went down, I adopted the appropriate demeanour and battened down for a night of surprises.
What followed was an astounding evening of varied musical forms, styles and tempos played by a crack nine piece ensemble that simply, according to my jazz parlance glossary, ‘flew’. I mean, man, these guys were a gas!
Opening with a couple of Ennio Morricone pieces – Gabriel’s Oboe from the film, The Mission, and Cinema Paradiso from the film of the same name – my first surprise was that Botti was quite willing to hand over the limelight to his musicians and, from the outset, violinist, Sandy Cameron, was given centre stage (and not for the last time) and, with her soaring solos, she set the bar extremely high for the other musicians on stage.
Victor Young’s much covered When I Fall In Love followed, in a poignant interpretation by Botti, and was much more in line with what I imagined the music of the evening would be like.
Giving plenty of space over to the astonishing piano runs of Geoffrey Keezer; the virtuoso guitar playing of Leonardo Amuedo; the evocative synth swirls of Rachel Eckroth; and to the often wild and idiosyncratic rhythm section of Reggie Hamilton on bass and Lee Pearson on drums, versions of Michel Colombier’s Emmanuel and Gene De Paul’s You Don’t Know What Love Is, made a mockery of the rules set out in my guidebook.
Here, it was clear that the musicians were having tremendous fun – especially Pearson at his drum kit – and the crowd were whooping and calling out from the stalls, obviously oblivious to the need for remaining aloof and reflective.
At one point, Botti declared pianist Keezer to be comparable with John Coltrane, to which Keezer replied, ‘Well we both drove station wagons…’
Is this how jazz performance is supposed to be – full of humour and self-deprecation? My preconceptions were being shattered one by one.
A heartfelt tribute to Miles Davis then ensued as the band played a gorgeous version of Blue In Green, probably the best known track from Davis’ ground-breaking album, Kind Of Blue.
This quieter, less frenetic piece put the audience in the right frame of mind to experience Botti’s take on Leonard Cohen’s most famous tune, Hallelujah, and he made the tune sound fresh again after its over-exposure in recent times, reminding us all what a magnificent piece of music it really is.
Pieces from Botti’s 2007 album, Italia, were plentiful throughout the show, and after a terrific version of Venice, from that album, the excitement was ramped up another notch.
Botti announced to the crowd that: ‘In classy theatres such as this they usually make announcements along the lines of ‘no flash photography, no videotaping of the performance and no audio recording’. Well, we say forget that. Film and record as much as you want, but just promise me that, should I fall off the stage, or play a wrong note, you won’t put that up on YouTube!’
Cue phone cameras switched on en masse, and a palpable relaxing of the crowd’s respectful inhibition.
The band subsequently launched into the old standard For All We Know – with its arrangement loosely based on Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s version – and the trumpet maestro went for a crowd walk posing for photos and working the crowd into a frenzy of adoration. As this song then morphed into Ray Noble’s The Very Thought Of You, the elegantly imposing figure of Sy Smith appeared on the stage steps at the opposite side of the theatre and she delivered a magnificent powerhouse vocal that lifted the roof off of this staid old Adelaide theatre.
Smith stayed on stage, keeping the energy level high, and powered through an awesome version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s The Look Of Love.
Things temporarily calmed down as Botti invited Sandy Cameron back to the stage to perform a lengthy solo violin piece. Lit by a single spotlight, Cameron stalked the stage like a caged animal, summoning up sounds from her violin that resonated with impatient anticipation. As the tension grew to breaking point she leapt into the air and the band simultaneously launched into a thumping rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir – an unexpected turn of events, and one which won over even the most resolute disbelievers in the house.
As the audience regained its composure after completely losing it during the Zeppelin number, Botti invited Rafel Moras to come to the microphone and sing Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro), the tune immortalised by Andrea Bocelli, and my expectations and assumptions were challenged yet again.
Moras’s voice sent chills through the crowd who whooped and hollered as he hit and sustained notes with power and clarity, confirming that any remaining skerrick of reserve or restraint on the part of the crowd had long disappeared.
Botti finished the main part of the performance with his own composition, Regrooveable, and followed it with a crowd-pleasing cover of Al Green’s immortal, Let’s Stay Together, replete with a welcome return to the stage of Sy Smith.
As it was Valentine’s Day week, Botti returned to the stage, jokingly informed the audience that Geoffrey Keezer was shouting the bar at the Hilton after the show, and offered us up an elegiac version of the Rodgers and Hart classic, My Funny Valentine, to send us off into the night.
Chris Botti and his band provided me with one of those affirming life experiences – where pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to try something new brings high rewards.
A really great night!
Chris Botti And Friends played for one night only at Her Majesty’s Theatre on February 19 2018.