Ask Chris Botti how he sees himself, and the Grammy-winning trumpeter delivers a three-pronged answer:
“I’m a trumpet player first and a jazz musician second, and I’m an entertainer,” Botti said. “That’s my real problem with jazz. They think if you’re trying to be an entertainer, you’re diminishing the music. I’ve got a news flash for them. Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie were all entertainers. With Miles, turning his back on the audience was his entertainment, a shrewd move.”
Miles, of course, would be Miles Davis, the legendary jazz trumpeter who, decades ago, prompted the young Botti to decide to play music for a living.
“He inspired me to be a professional musician,” Botti said. “My start came when I saw Doc Severinsen on TV. That was when I was 9. When I was 12, I heard Miles and the whole thing just clicked. Doc was a great trumpet player; still is. But he was all flash. With Miles, that brooding beautiful sound is what got me.”
More than 40 years after he heard “My Funny Valentine,” Davis continues to play an important role in Botti’s music.
“We play a couple songs from ‘Kind of Blue’ every night,” he said. “It’s very evident with the way I play, the horn muting, that I’m very influenced by Miles.”
Lincoln will get a chance to hear Botti and his band play Miles, and the rest of his wide-ranging, stylistically varied repertoire, when he returns to the Lied Center for Performing Arts for the first time in six years Thursday.
“For anyone who hasn’t come to one of my shows, it’s hard to explain it,” Botti said. “If I’m going to see U2, they’re going to play their hits and there’s going to be a light show. You understand that. They don’t understand that with me, they’re coming to see a band with three singers, one of them is an opera singer, one of them’s a jazz singer, one of them’s R&B singer. It’s all over the place.
“It’s the variety of music in the show that makes it so different. There isn’t anywhere else you can see that. I’m curator of a Rubik’s Cube of an all-star band. That’s been my mantra for 15, oops, 16 years.”
Prior to leading his band, Botti played in the bands of music legends, starting with Frank Sinatra when he was still a student at Indiana University. He spent a decade touring and recording with Paul Simon and during that period also performed with the likes of Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin and, in 1999, toured with Sting.
“Being around Paul Simon, Sting and Joni Mitchell, I learned a lot about being a band leader,” Botti said. “My first gig was with Sinatra. He wasn’t just a singer, he was an entertainer and a band leader. He was like (comedian Don) Rickles except he sang. He would talk to an audience, not at them. That’s something I learned early, how to interact with an audience.”
He also learned to play hits -- something that, even though he has a Best Pop Instrumental Album Grammy for 2013’s “Impressions,” Botti’s repertoire lacks.
“I’m a musician,” Botti said. “I don’t have a hit song. If you look at Chris Isaak, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, they have a hit song. Did K.D. Lang play 'Constant Craving?' You can’t ask that about me. I have a hit band, a hit show.”
Botti acknowledges that he’s never going to have a hit -- in part that’s because he’s an instrumentalist who isn’t likely to get the radio airplay and playlisting that creates hits in 2019.
But it’s also because, in his words, the “record business fell off a cliff.”
That was borne out by the Billboard albums chart the week we spoke. That chart, released Jan. 14, had rapper Boogie Wit Da Hoodie’s “Hoodie SZN” at No. 1. Streamed 83 million times, the album sold exactly zero physical copies (CDs, vinyl albums) and had only 823 paid downloads.
That, to say the least, is a disincentive for artists like Botti to make records.
“I really don’t know why you would do it,” Botti said. “We did a live DVD last year that’s out there. We play a show and people put it on Twitter, they put it on YouTube, that’s the record of it. I suppose I’ll make a record this year. But I don’t know. I’m better at my craft. I’m a better trumpet player than I was 9 years ago, 5 years ago. But I’m a touring act.”
And tour he does -- playing about 250 shows a year.
“We’ve done more than that,” he said. “We were gone 300 days a year when we were a cheaper act. We would go anywhere. We had situations where we’d fly to Seoul, Korea, to do a one-nighter, then the next day was Jacksonville, Florida.”
Botti's tour, apparently as never ending as Bob Dylan’s, will stop at the Lied on Thursday. He’ll use all his skills -- as a musician and entertainer -- to create a special evening.
“I go see a lot of shows and support a lot of musicians,” Botti said. “It’s just hilarious, they don’t care at all. You’ll see them come out and the first thing they say is ‘on the piano, blah, blah, blah,’ ‘on the drums, blah, blah, blah,' ‘on the trumpet, blah, blah, blah.’ Then they play the music. How do you know anything about those people and the music? If you thread things out and talk about people individually, it makes it more special and it brings people into the show.”