09.19.08 Sting performs with Chris Botti and Boston Pops...


Botti brings A-list artists together...

There is something so fabulously not magical about attending a concert being taped for later broadcast during a PBS pledge drive. It's where you get to see a harried makeup guy jog on stage to powder the star's face between songs, and where the surprise guest isn't some local yokel but John Mayer - doing Frank Sinatra. It's definitely the only place you see Sting, Josh Groban, Chris Botti, and the Boston Pops make four attempts at getting 'Shape of My Heart' right. (For the record, Groban blew the lyrics on the second try, Botti missed his entrance on the third, at which point Sting announced that he needed a drink.)

Needless to say, a good time was had by all.

'Chris Botti Live in Boston' will become a television special and DVD in March 2009. But last night - the first of his two-night stand - it was a relaxed evening with good friends and good music. Botti, a jazz-pop trumpeter who has made the leap from in-demand sideman to Top 40 star, certainly achieved his goal of bringing a wide range of styles to Symphony Hall, which was by turns a jazz bar, rock club, opera house, R&B joint, and "American Idol" showcase.

The latter incarnation came courtesy of lovely Katharine McPhee. The season five runner-up did a fine job tamping down her slick pop inflections during a commendable cover of 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. The bigger surprise, though, was Mayer, whose languid and swinging take on the ballad 'Glad To Be Unhappy' would have made Sinatra proud.

Botti's instrumentals - among them 'Ave Maria', 'Caruso', and Miles Davis's 'Flamenco Sketches' - were pristine. (They weren't always well-chosen; the trumpeter's icy-cool sound was practically an affront to Leonard Cohen's soul-stirring 'Hallelujah.') But Botti's tones were beautifully formed, the man can hold a high note and charm a crowd, and his four-man band was beyond tight and tasteful.

And yet Botti disappeared, as mortals tend to do, when his former boss Sting took the stage to sing tricky, winsome 'Seven Days'. "Goodnight!" Botti shouted, only half in jest, following the rock star's first, mid-set appearance.

Wielding comparable wattage but a good deal less musical power was Steven Tyler, in fully-scarved regalia, for wan renditions of Aerosmith's 'Cryin'' and 'Smile', his contribution to Botti's 2005 duets album.

Josh Groban hasn't been showered with a lot of love in these pages, but his beautifully restrained performance of 'Broken Vow', an anthem in desperate need of a home in the movies, earned him a new convert last night. Likewise Sy Smith, a member of Botti's touring band, won hearts and minds with her rousing and unlikely funk cover of 'The Look of Love'.

Oh yes, the Pops were there. Keith Lockhart and company supplied sweet swells and cinematic flourishes - the perfect icing on a successful pledge drive.

© Boston Globe by Joan Anderman
Chris Botti trumpets star-studded cast...

Unlike Mary Tyler Moore, trumpeter Chris Botti knows how to throw a party where the guest list gels.

During the first show of his two-night stand at Symphony Hall, Botti culled guests from under music's kitchen sink that intermingled famously. With Keith Lockhart and the Pops working up a mostly gentle lather behind him, Botti demonstrated his talent with ease, and the format testified to the versatility of everyone involved.

All smiles in a smart black suit, the ever-dapper horn virtuoso began with selections that showcased his instrument and phenomenal four-piece band. In particular, 'When I Fall in Love' triumphed with a deliciously funky undercurrent that left ample room for both keyboardist Billy Childs and guitarist Mark Whitfield to stretch out. Drummer Billy Kilson was an animated blur of syncopated activity, and upright bassist Robert Hurst took skilled, playful liberties during Miles Davis' 'Flamenco Sketches'.

Contemporary-classical vocalist Josh Groban's well-suited for a crossover lineup like last night's, and his voice rang clear as a church bell when he joined Botti for Lara Fabian's achingly romantic ballad, 'Broken Vow'. American Idol runner-up Kathrine McPhee's take on Cole Porter's 'Ive Got You Under My Skin' found her sounding infinitely more comfortable and in command than on her forced-seeming debut.

Flown in from Italy while vacationing after The Police's tour, Sting emerged to a standing ovation (just one of many). And though his silk, spandex-and-suspenders ensemble looked a little silly, his performance definitely wasn't. From his 'Ten Summoners Tales' disc, 'Seven Days' forced the band to kick it up a few notches, and Sting's sandpapery pipes sounded perfectly natural amid the spunky jazz-pop groove. Later, for an encore, he was joined by Groban and his resident guitarist, Dominic Miller, for a stunning version of 'Shape of My Heart'.

Aerosmith's Steven Tyler was equally well-received, and the Pops did a bang-up job with 'Cryin', though his recreation of Charlie Chaplin's 'Smile' might qualify as the night's only misstep.

John Mayer was indeed a surprise, looking uncharacteristically clean-cut to sing the Rodgers & Hart classic, 'Glad to be Unhappy'.

Mayer played it safe with his song, but the performance was a gamble on the whole and serves as a perfect example of something Botti's been up to all along: Taking talented singer/songwriters out of their comfort zone and presenting them in an unlikely jazz context and making it work. Splendidly.

© Boston Herald by Christopher John Treacy
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