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To Love Again: The Duets

Is Chris Botti trying to replace Wynton Marsalis now that Marsalis has sold out to Classical Music and succeeded in alienating fans of his work in the jazz genre? Perhaps. The two trumpeters sound a lot alike at times. What sets them both apart from their peers is purity of tone, technical proficiency and a somewhat Classical-sounding approach to the attack and release of tones.

Artist: Chris Botti
Producer: Bobby Colombi
Label: Columbia
Release Date: 2005

Featuring: Michael Buble, Paul Buchanan, Paula Cole, Renee Olstead, Rosa Passos, Jill Scott, Sting, Steven Tyler (vocals)
Featuring: Billy Childs (piano)

Botti's public relations and promotion machine have been working at full-steam for quite some time now, and doing a good job at helping make the young musician quite famous. He's been all over the place, performed in front of Royalty, appeared on television both on public TV and with Grande Dame of All Things Homey Martha Stewart. I heard Botti a while ago on NBC's The Today Show. I was impressed, but not enough to go out and buy one of his records, which the jazz grapevine had been, up to that point, waffling about.

First, a bit about Sony BMG. They now own Columbia. Since Sony got too big for its britches, their jazz releases have been, as a proportion of their total output, far too few and far between. What's really silly is that Sony's releasing jazz like crazy in Japan; but none of these fine artists (including my friend vocalist Kim Zombik who was thrilled to be signed by Sony, only to be let down enormously by their contractually forbidding her to sell, gift or otherwise convey a single one of her Japanese CDs to any person or entity in the United States. The only way to get 'em is to have a friend in Japan purchase one and ship it to the U.S.) To add insult to injury, a Sony album Kim recorded in Montreal was restricted to Canadian distribution only, as well. But I digress

Embraceable You

It turns my head when Sony releases an album for a jazz artist. Botti must be doing something right, because he's released a total of 4 on the Columbia (read "Sony") label. His latest is worth a listen for a number of reasons. George and Ira Gershwin wrote "Embraceable You" many, many years ago. Botti swings the song but imbues it with a little bit of bebop flavor. The cut is a perfect choice for harbinger of things to come. Botti plays behind the beat, utilizes dramatic tempo changes and arranger Jeremy Lubbock achieves a pleasant effect with a key change that seemingly comes out of nowhere. Botti and his world-class combo (including the likes of Billy Childs on piano, drummer Billy Kilson and a host of others are accompanied by the lush tones of an orchestra called "London Session Orchestra 2005." They're great. When the engineers decide they want you to hear them. But that's just my opinion (if you're going to play with a damn orchestra, let the listener hear the orchestra! Otherwise just use a string machine. Who are you, anyway, Barbra Streisand?)

Sting Sings "What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life"

Michel Legrand's work with The Bergmans includes some of the most contemporary additions to the Great American Songbook beside the work of Hal David and Burt Bacharach. The Legrand/Bergman machine is well-represented here with "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?" Now, this tune is one of those musical near-cliches that can go one of three ways. One can hear it in an elevator, played by "The 101 Strings;" Eydie Gorme does a version that makes one want to don polyester, lean back on a crushed-velvet couch and drink Smirnoff and smoke cigarettes; but Botti's rendition, with none other than Sting performing vocally as I've never heard before (although I kinda miss his lower register on this tune) takes the cake for breathing fresh air into an old jazz/lounge war horse. But for the fact that the words "rest of your life" is rhymed with "West of your life" (ouch!) Botti, Sting and company re-visit this beautiful Legrand-penned melody and do it justice.

My One And Only Love

Jazz singer Paula Cole does a fine job coming in on the second half of "My One And Only Love." It's another great melody and Botti carries it off in classic style without much flourish. The minimalism of the arrangement lets each performer's instrument shine.

"Let There Be Love" is a relative obscurity that I think I heard Sinatra sing once. Singer Michael Buble either decided, or was directed, to attenuate his "Las Vegas Lounge" sound completely for this happy ode to love which utilizes delightful metaphors, including one regarding oysters and another having to do with Chili Con Carne that will have the listener salivating should the album be playing before a dinner party (the whole album's a good bet to get conversation started, by the way, at a dinner party, given the variety and stature of the singers, and the choice of songs). The orchestra gets let off its lease for moments at a time to good effect, giving one a taste of big-band flavor that works really well wit Buble and Botti swinging hard together, yet keeping it all their own; not Sinatra's style of swing-a-ding-ding.

Emulation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery, or, "What's New?"

Oh, dear. The next selection reeks of Sony's placement of commercial success over originality in programming. I just hope it was Botti who chose to solo (absent vocal) on "What's New." Of course, this tune was the namesake for the mid-'80s Linda Ronstadt collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle and his orchestra. To my relief it was different, in that the orchestra takes a back seat to the purest, most delightfully placed notes Botti plays on this entire album. Arranger Lubbock pays homage to Riddle by emulating Riddle's ballad style (the Ronstadt version was a slow but definitive swing). Now, "What's New" in ballad style as it's played here is almost funereal; so those who know the lyrics realize that Botti and his arranger are familiar with their bittersweet tone, so the music actually tells a story (a characteristic lacking on most of the other cuts on this album, and of the song selection and order on the album itself). Not to worry; the listener's treated to a lovely orchestral sunrise to bring one's emotions back to "even" after this very moving, unique treatment of a great Standard.

Good Morning (Mistuh') Heartache

Singer Jill Scott is a self-proclaimed poet. Her debut recording of song and spoken word, on the Hidden Beach label, should delight fans of poetry. Here, on "Good Morning Heartache" her distinctive voice echoes the haunting high register of Billie Holiday, but unlike Lady Day, this lady's notes are all hit on perfect pitch (not to demean Ms. Holiday's style of starting a little lower, or higher, or drooping in the middle of a tone for effect). A story is told here, with Botti merely adding emotion, color and texture. This song could easily serve as Botti's study of the style of Miles Davis - and he gets an "A" in my book. Ms. Scott actually sighs rather loudly before her first note is sung, and one can envision her sitting down at the kitchen table greeting a real live man named "Heartache." Then she sings and gets up from the table and walks around and speaks and spits and demonstrates that she's an independent woman and will not be overcome by this man. A neat take on a song that could've brought one down actually might have the listener thinking "you go, girl!"

"To Love Again" is a Botti original, co-written with Federico Pena. It's clearly a song of longing, performed minimalist-style. Great contemporary jazz; but certainly not destined to become a part of the classic jazz repertoire.

The Lonesome Song

Now, I have nothing at all against Elvis Presley. But there's a time and a place for everything. "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on an album of jazz is kinda like placing an olive-green Barcalounger in the middle of a Bauhaus-styled home furnished otherwise with the artistry of Marcel Breuer. Kitschy. Now, I have nothing at all about progressive/alternative singer Paul Buchanan of Blue Nile fame. However, would that I had some sort of electronic pencil-eraser, I'd erase this cut from my copy of the record. Really, the song tries too hard to be charming. It nearly charmed my lunch out of me.

Lover Man

The famed Gladys Knight whose recent album "Before Me" was interesting becomes even more interesting here, as she loosens up and lets the soul-jazz fly with "Lover Man." The engineers were kind enough to let the Hammond B-3 organ (part of the orchestra; not part of the combo) shine in this musical version of Collard Greens, Fried Chicken and Corn Bread. It's just delightful. Bass player Robert Hurst has a ball with '70s-sounding plucks and the whole thing just works really well. Sadly, it's the only really soulful cut on the album, beside the modernist, new-millenium soul on "Good Morning Heartache." The combo has a ball with this song and the listener knows it. Botti adds to the fun and keeps it light but flava-ful.

I'll Be Seeing You

I cried when I heard the charming (but not cloying) rendition of "I'll be Seeing You," the Sammy Fain classic melody, here without words. I used a live version of the song at my father's funeral. Pianist/arranger/composer Billy Childs plays off of Botti's pure, unadulterated notes making this one of the less-stylized pieces on the album. It works. Satchmo, when asked for advice on how best to perform a complicated or new melody, told Billy Holiday to "sing it as the guy wrote it, that's all." The arranger, and Botti, both apparently followed Armstrong's advice for this cut, making it simple and beautiful without being cloying. And it certainly has the potential to be sickly-sweet in the wrong hands.

"Pennies From Heaven," a timeless, happy tune with whimsical lyrics, is introduced with a great big blast from the horn section of the orchestra (gee, this album's an emotional roller-coaster, if you like that sorta thing). Bubbly jazz singer Renee Olstead gives us practical advice on what to do if the weather gets in the way of our plans. Botti screams in a post-bop style that's great but which may confuse those listeners looking for something a little more resembling the melody. Jazz fans will feast on this. For good measure, Botti ends the tune with something like a glissando upward that punctuates the statement the tune makes, and leaves one wondering what technical pyrotechnics he'll come up with to top it.

Here's That Rainy Day

Latin Singer Rosa Passos is Botti's next partner in song. "Here's That Rainy Day" is perfectly positioned after the positively popping "Pennies" so that we can try on the advice it gives. The arrangement could've been darker, Ms. Passos's delivery sad; but the choice of tempo, timbre and tone are just fine. Ms. Passos tells a story. Botti helps her. That's it. And it's great.

Smile

How ironic that the man with one of the biggest mouths (not figuratively, physically) in rock 'n roll (with apologies to Mick Jagger); Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame, was tapped to handle "Smile." Written by none other than the astonishingly talented Charlie Chaplin, the song was "owned" for the longest time by Jimmy Durante. Here we hear Tyler, using his rock voice, but sotto voce, rather than screaming, singing in perfect pitch a ballad. His delivery made me wonder if he wasn't trying to cheer himself up a bit, rather than the listener. But it works and it's hauntingly beautiful. Chaplin's simple rhymes are clever nonetheless, and timeless. This makes a fitting ending for the album.

Why no track list? Well, I've listed 'em all in order, along with commentary. There's a method behind my madness. This is a musical buffet; kinda like a mix-disc. Sony and Botti, by association, are trying here to please everyone. This doesn't work. However, for the few tunes that stand out, the album's worth paying for. Had I not received it from Columbia, I'd probably have bought it just to hear stuff like the Botti/Buble pairing, "What's New" especially with the fine trumpet work, and to enjoy the soulfulness of songstresses Scott and Knight. Like I said before, this disc, at worst, would be a great conversation-starter/background disc for the start of a small dinner party.
 

NOTE: This disc was one of the discs whose initial purchasers were eligible for class-action damage reparations under the Sony BMG copy protection fiasco. Sadly, this review comes past the tolling of the final day purchasers of so-called "infected" discs could reap their legal rewards. Thank goodness the review/preview copies didn't have the software on them at all. The initial pressing of three million Sony BMG discs (this title and about 50 others) contained software that engaged when the disc was placed into a computer for play on Windows Media Player or for transfer to an iPod. The intention being to prevent illegal copying of the disc, and collection of user's player data, the code was so poorly written that it opened, pardon the pun, whole new windows for hackers to maliciously attack computers used to play the disc. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission also found that, indeed, the unthinkable was happening to owners of certain hardware. The discs were breaking, I shit you not; breaking , people's CD-ROM drives. The cost to Sony BMG was steep.
 

SOURCES:

  • www.chrisbotti.com (Accessed 3/19/07)

  • The Blue Nile Fan Website: http://www.geocities.com/SunsetStrip/Palace/5216/ (Accessed 3/19/07)

  • Jill Scott's Website: http://www.jillscott.com/ (Accessed 3/19/07)

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