(July 31, 2010)

Chris Botti, man with the golden horn

Chris Botti's instrument — a 1939 Martin Committee large-bore handcrafted trumpet — may be the best thing ever designed by a committee.

It's the horn on which Botti (pronounced "BOAT-tee") has recorded Grammy-winning music.

And it really was designed by a committee.

It's the horn that has defied record-store pigeonholers. Botti can't be classical — he recorded with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. He can't be rock — there he is with Yo-Yo Ma. Not jazz — he plays with symphony orchestras.

And it's the horn Botti will bring to Peekskill's Paramount Center for the Arts for a concert Friday.

Whatever he's playing, Botti knows that if he wants it to sound right, he must practice.

Daily.

He told Newsweek his trumpet is "the ultimate ex-wife."

"It needs a lot of attention. It needs it every single day," he says. "It doesn't care what else you've done. Pay attention to it."

The music world has been paying attention to Botti.

For three decades, he has recorded and performed with Frank Sinatra, Josh Groban, Michael Buble, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Andrea Bocelli, Joshua Bell and the aforementioned Aerosmith frontman.

A longtime sideman to Sting, Botti burst onto the scene with 2004's acclaimed "When I Fall in Love." That was also the year People magazine declared him one of the year's 50 Most Beautiful People. (Botti was linked with CBS anchor Katie Couric in the tabloids a few years back.)

Inspired to lead a life on the road, he years ago gave up the idea of a home, sold the contents of his storage unit and reduced his world to what he could carry in one suitcase, one carry-on and one trumpet case.

"I have no possessions," he's fond of saying. "No dog, no cat, no plant."

But he does have that horn.

"The characteristic of it is that it takes the brassiness and the harshness out of the trumpet," he says. "You can play all the high crazy stuff, but it has a beautiful, warm texture to it."

Botti's personal warmth is evident on stage. Like his idol, trumpet great Miles Davis, Botti surrounds himself with world-class artists and often steps aside to let them shine.

"If you look at Miles Davis' most successful record, 'Kind of Blue,' and you add up the percentage of time that you actually hear his trumpet on that record, he's probably about 25 percent," Botti says. "The rest of the time you're hearing Bill Evans or John Coltrane or Cannonball Adderly. But if you listen to a pop album, a Sting record — and, hey, Sting's my brother — he's probably on there 98 percent.

"But I don't want to hear a trumpet all night long. So when I put the trumpet down, how do you fascinate an audience? You'd better make sure you have an incredible band that will hold their attention. And you can craft the way that the show moves by ventilating with a different solo here, or some different bit of comedy there. That's kind of an old-school, Sinatra, Basie, Miles Davis kind of way of looking at music. I wish more musicians would do that."

In Peekskill, Botti will share the Paramount stage with his "A-band of life" — Billy Childs (piano), Billy Kilson (drums), Mark Whitfield (guitar) and Robert Hurst (bass) — and violinist Lucia Micarelli, "a tremendous artist, so talented," and vocalist Lisa Fischer, a longtime backup singer with The Rolling Stones.

"She's just this ri-diculous singer," Botti says of Fischer, pausing mid-ridiculous for emphasis. "She has a range like Mariah Carey, power like Tina Turner, and she sings in four languages. So we can do all the Bocelli things that we do. (As in, songs Botti recorded with Andrea Bocelli.)

The Peekskill repertoire will include Italian works and several songs from the star-studded album "Chris Botti in Boston," the DVD of which is a favorite during PBS pledge drives. Botti's duet with violinist Micarelli on "Emmanuel" is a steamy, sensuous give-and-take, one they're likely to play in Peekskill.

Even with all of his practice, Botti knows his playing is very much a work in progress.

"As you get more refined into an instrument — whether it's cello, piano or trumpet — then you realize that you're up against your own psychosis," he says. "You'll never master it. It's unattainable.

"There are certain things that I'm working on in my playing now that I would have never had the expertise to do even 20 years ago. That's the one thing that I'm really happy about in my life right now: Right now my trumpet playing is far better in my 40s than it was in my 30s or my 20s.

"Still, I know that the tide will turn," he says. "When I get in my 60s, the instrument is so physically demanding, I don't know if I'll be able to still hit all the same high notes with the grace that you need, but at this point, I'm still on the rise up."