If you are going to have Sting waiting in the wings as a special guest, then your show needs to be strong enough to starve off the anticipation. Chris Botti did a reasonable job of that with his Dubai Jazz Festival performance on Thursday night.
Joined by a near dozen strong backing band, the popular American trumpeter serenaded the packed crowd to an evening of jazz standards and reinterpretations of pop classics.
However, the Botti on stage is a different performer to his multimillion selling albums.
Where those records were nocturnal affairs and a soundtrack of choice for dinner parties, the 53 year old was much looser live as he indulged in several feats of dazzling improvisations among arrangements ranging from big band to straight out rock.
In the case of the latter, their take on Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir packed a real punch with Botti’s Spanish influenced tones adding extra pomp to the affair.
At times, one felt that Botti and his crew were trying too hard with the extended rock and blues jams - it almost felt like he was trying to justify himself for being the arena act that he now is.
It was when he dialled things down that Botti was in his element. His thoughtful take of Billie Holiday’s The Very Thought of You, featuring vocalist Sy Smith, was beautiful.
So was his treatment of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; where the original revelled in mystery, Botti’s take was more refined and melodic.
It set the scene well for the arrival of Sting, who sauntered on to the stage over an hour into the set.
He began his mini solo set (Botti left the stage) with If I Ever Lose My Faith, demonstrating why the 64-year-old vocals remaining one of the best in the business.
By the time he breezed through English Man in New York and Message in A Bottle, one feared that Botti was totally overshadowed.
For all the talk of Sting’s ego, however, the rock icon was a gracious support act to Botti when the latter returned on stage.
One could sense the mutual appreciation between the two when they performed a joint set of Sting classics and covers.
When it came to the former, the laid back, jazzed-up vibe of Seven Days was a treat. However, their take on the Frank Sinatra classic In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning was a flop - the ache and heart break of the original was criminally replaced with Disneyesque schmaltzy arrangements.
That said, the set was varied enough to keep fans of both artists satisfied.
Earlier in the evening, British singer-songwriter David Gray delivered another sublime performance at the festival change.
It has been five years since his last appearance here and fans were dedicated to heart felt takes from the two albums released since then.
Gray’s set list showed the various styles he played with throughout his career, from the straight up folk of Shine to the orchestral flourishes of the towering Slow Motion.
It was all held together by that ragged and weathered voice that seems to get more gravelly with each release.
It is the sincerity of Gray’s performance that somehow keeps staples Sail Away and Babylon from sounding too tired and dated.
(c) The National by Saeed Saeed