Pillbox

Heinz Hall’s hot Botti

Air molecules vibrated and grooved to the melodies and improvisation last Thursday night as Grammy-nominated artist Chris Botti, jazz trumpeter, played Heinz Hall for the first time.

With the stage backlit in a mood-setting purple and the sold-out house filled with jazz lovers, old and young alike, Botti kicked off the concert with a soulful trumpet piece accompanied solely by Andy Ezrin on a grand piano. The following two hours proceeded with Botti playing numerous original scores, along with covers of classics by Miles Davis and Stevie Wonder, with improvisation and not just trumpet, but also guitar, drum, and piano solos.

Botti’s trumpet had a tone of sweetness that even on the more lively improvisations reflected his own styling and persona. Resonating powerfully throughout Heinz Hall, Botti’s playing was infused with immense energy, but he still seemed to be holding back in case his band members challenged him with their own creative interpretations. This control looked easy for Botti, showing him as an accomplished and mature musician. There were times, however, when other sections of the band made Botti’s trumpet shrink back.

At times, guitarist Mark Whitfield and drummer Billy Kilson nearly stole the show as Botti stood to the side with his trumpet ready. Whitfield’s guitar solos lit up the eardrums with an unidentified number between “Willow Weep for Me” and Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” Kilson was even more impressive on two drum solos: In one, he lost a drum stick (although it was probably staged). Bassist James Genus laid down funk-inspired support that kept the rhythm of songs bordering on rambunctious.

Sy Smith, Whitfield’s cousin, offered her sweet soulful vocals in “The Look of Love,” although the performance lacked the energy of the music of the other songs. Ever cognizant of their roots, Botti, Ezrin, and Whitfield honored recently deceased jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker with “Hallelujah.”

Botti’s jazz debut was the album First Wish in 1995. Most of his early work can be characterized as smooth jazz, and it came after years of playing in the bands of great performers such as Frank Sinatra. Botti’s recent work has been influenced more by traditional jazz styles along with fusion and funk. To Love Again: The Duets from 2005 featured pop vocalists interlaced with pop-jazz and orchestral jazz tunes.

At the concert, supported by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and WQED Multimedia, Botti showed himself to be a lively and entertaining speaker, reminiscing about his journey to jazz and the trumpet as he grew up in Portland, Oregon. Botti’s voice conveyed his own humility when he joked that musicians “need a lot of encouragement because they suck for the first 30 years.” Botti is 45.

Recalling how he had put the band together, he said, “I did what any good bandleader would do — I went to Google.” Plugging PBS for its promotion of jazz and music education, Botti interspersed music with anecdotes of his tour as the opening act for Sting and his run-ins with Sinatra. In introducing fellow band members, Botti also weaved a colorful account of their talent through third-person narrative. With a natural flair for showmanship, Botti serenaded a woman in the audience with “My Funny Valentine” for his penultimate act.

The blend of styles and range of ability of Botti and his band made the show thoroughly enjoyable to jazz lovers and newcomers alike. Kilson’s stellar solos gave the concert an added je ne sais quoi quality — appreciable even to those who claim that jazz puts them to sleep.