Fans and A-listers alike rubbed elbows, coming together to enjoy two phenomenal nights of music featuring performances from the likes of Sting, Gladys Knight (second night only), Burt Bacharach, Jill Scott, Paula Cole, Paul Buchanan and Rene Olstead. In addition to Chris' band--consisting on these nights of Billy Childs (piano), Billy Kilson (drums), James Genus (bass) and Mark Whitfield (guitar) - a full orchestra, conducted by Gil Goldstein, anchored the back portion of the stage.
The elegant set design and poignantly sparse lighted backdrops were the work of Jim Gable, whom Sting fans were most recently exposed to via the 'Sacred Love' tour video panels.
The anticipation started a few months ago when the preparation "wheels" were put in motion for the concerts that will enjoy a second - and broader life - as a Public Broadcast System (PBS) telecast and a DVD release, both currently slated for March 2006. (As is typical of many such events, performances are taped over two different nights so that there is a "safety net" in the event of technical issues.) The broadcast and DVD taping are in support of Chris' new album - 'To Love Again', which debuted at #18 on The Billboard 200 chart - no easy feat for a jazz album.
And although fans left the art deco theater after the first night expressing superlatives and thinking they had seen an exceptional event, the following night's performances were such that the moon and the stars must have been in complete alignment. It was impossible for the audience not to feel that they were in the presence of something overwhelmingly magical.
But before the first performer could even take the stage, an incredible amount of frenetic activity took place at the theater early in the day on December 1st. By approximately 2 p.m., the areas outside the artist's entrance and inside the venue were bustling with load-in activities. Television trucks were parked outside, road crews were wheeling in massive tour cases and orchestral musicians were disembarking at the bus stop a block away, weighed down by their respective instruments.
The Wilshire Theater marquee simply stated: Chris Botti, Dec 1 & 2.
Everything and everybody was being marched down the loading ramp and into the theater, where more frenetic activity was taking place. There were musicians scrambling to set up, stage hands positioning risers, television production crews anchoring the various cameras in their respective spots, final touches being placed on lighting configurations and so on.
Chris was in an exceptionally light-hearted mood, joking with friends, musicians and crew as preparations were being made for two nights that would set his own personal-best bar to a new height level.
Since the event was being filmed, no photographic cameras would be allowed during the actual performances. This meant that soundcheck would be the only opportunity to capture a few stills and get an advance listen to what was in store for the audience later that night. (Typically soundchecks are challenging for photographers due to lighting being less than ideal. This one was no exception. One had to scramble to capture the shot when a spot light was beamed onto the performer and/or the production crew wasn't blocking the lens.)
Sting's soundcheck was early in the afternoon and he arrived with the punctuality for which he is known. Dressed in a brown sheer body hugging shirt and jeans, Sting took the stage to run through the three numbers he would later perform for the cameras and audience - 'What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life', 'My Funny Valentine' and 'Message in a Bottle'. (Even the seasoned production veterans in the room stopped what they were doing for a few moments to applaud what they had just heard. Beaming faces told the rest of the story.)
One by one, the other performers arrived - everyone in casual attire typical of the soundcheck environment. Performers greeted each other and exchanged hugs as the production crew worked feverishly around them, laying more cables, anchoring camera dollies and meticulously checking and rechecking lighting angles and sound levels.
The orchestral musicians were smiling and nodding to each other as one after the other, Burt Bacharach, Jill Scott, Paula Cole, Paul Buchanan, and Rene Olstead took the stage and ran through their songs while Chris accompanied them and rehearsed his cues.
Was that really Burt Bacharach playing 'The Look of Love' on the piano? Was that really Jill Scott blowing everyone's mind with her vocal range? Did Sting just clap in cadence to 'Message in a Bottle'? It was as if one's personal iPod was projecting videos and channeling the audio through a Marshall stack. The word "surreal" comes to mind.
Fast forward a few hours and the theater had been transformed from structured chaos to a place that was ready to receive the audience. Fans from all parts of the country (and some from as far away as Sydney) made their way down the aisles to their respective seats.
Different groups of people recognized and greeted each other. There were fans present who had been exposed to Chris from various "eras" of his career. Some were jazz aficionados who have followed his solo work from the mid-90s forward and others came via exposure from earlier collaborative work with artists such as Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell or more recently, Josh Groban and Michael Buble.
And then, of course, there is his most notable artistic association - that with Sting - which Chris describes as being responsible for introducing the sound of his trumpet to a worldwide audience and without whose generous support he would not have been standing on "such a stage" at the present time.
"I had coffee with Sting in London in 1999," he told the audience. "And during that meeting he told me that if I joined his band ['Brand New Day' tour] I would be able to expose my trumpet playing to thousands of people across the world."
He took Sting's advice and ultimately went on to open for him during two legs of the subsequent 'Sacred Love' Tour.
"Without his support, I would not be standing here tonight," Chris said.
Sting, dressed in a military-cuffed short jacket and striped trousers, contrasted by a white shirt and accented with a grey scarf, entered from stage right amidst huge screams from the audience to sing his first number - 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?' The performance was the fourth number on the set list and the first by a guest artist.
Sting returned to the stage following performances by Jill Scott, Paula Cole, Burt Bacharach, Rene Olstead, Paul Buchanan and Gladys Knight to perform 'My Funny Valentine'.
It is Chris' custom to step into the audience to serenade a lucky female during the performance of this song. To add entertainment value on this night, Chris chose Trudie Styler (Sting's wife). When Sting took the stage to perform the vocal portion of the song there was a playful mockery of Chris in his feigned annoyed delivery of the lyrics:
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
And as he did with Sting, Chris took time to set the stage for the relationship he now enjoys with each of the other featured performers on the Wilshire stage. He told both funny and poignant stories about when he first heard the specific pieces of music that were performed and when the first connections were made with each of the performers.
To keep some of the surprises intact for the public broadcast airing and DVD, we'll refrain from spilling the beans on those anecdotes at this time and let you hear it in Chris' words in a few months.)
All of the action was being captured by multiple cameras - some in fixed positions and others rolling along tracks or making their presence known like robotic creatures using Cartesian coordinates to articulate out from behind the curtains to grab the right shot.
To finish off a wildly electric night, Chris brought all of the performers out during the encore to take a final bow. As they walked off, he grabbed Sting, tugging him back toward center stage and asking him to "rock out" on the final number. Billy Kilson started pounding the drums in the familiar cadence of 'Message In A Bottle'. By now, everyone in the theater was on their feet, pumping fists in the air during I'll send an SOS to the world.
The icing on the cake was Sting cajoling the vocally-shy Chris to join him at his mic for the final chorus.
Also fueled by the electricity in the theater, Sting punctuated the end of the song by lifting up the mic stand and sending it crashing to the ground as he did his signature song-ending leap.
And there is more... so much more happened during this amazing two-night stand. There was Jill Scott taking 'Good Morning Heartache' to a place that did Billy Holiday proud. There was Gladys Knight delivering 'Loverman' in a way that brought the crowd to its feet. And there was Burt Bacharach who took his place at the grand piano to accompany Paula Cole on his own composition - 'The Look of Love'.
Fifteen-year-old Rene Olstead gave a thrilling performance of 'Pennies From Heaven' evocative of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. And Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan delivered a haunting rendition of Elvis Presley's 'Are You Lonesome Tonight'.
However, no tale would be complete without recounting the usual celebrity spotting that takes place during such media events.
Fans craned their necks on both nights to scan for "known" faces in the audience. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were in attendance the first night as were jazz artists Jeff Lorber and Michael Lington.
On night two, noted composer David Foster as well as singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson were among those present.
And a well-known celebrity had a spectacular flower arrangement delivered to Chris' dressing room that was so enormous, it took two crew members to lift it onto a dolly so that it could be transported. "I couldn't even put my arms around it," said a touched and overwhelmed Chris.
As the audience filed out of the theater, more cameras were in the lobby to capture their take on the show. No doubt, we will be seeing some of these exuberant video comments on the bonus feature section of the DVD.
For those that were there, it was indeed a magical experience. For those that were not, you will have the opportunity to experience it for yourselves in a handful of months. You will not be disappointed.
© Sophia Dilberakis for Sting.com