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Chris Botti  - Italia  (Columbia)

Chris Botti - ItaliaWord has it that since giving up his New York apartment a few years ago, Chris Botti has had no permanent residence. It’s funny to think of someone this successful as “homeless.”  but truly, even if he had a pad somewhere, he’d never be there. One look at the travel itinerary on his website and it’s clear that his incredible popularity these past few years has ensured that he’s too in demand around the world to stay in one place for more than a few nights. His international agenda in early 2008 includes stops in Mexico City, Warsaw and London and he’s got bookings that run into mid-2009. Evolving from the smooth jazz roots that brought him to stardom in the 90s, Botti has taken his straightforward, subtle and melodic, Miles Davis influenced style to the top of the traditional charts and into the hearts of millions worldwide.

Expectations were high following the extraordinary breakthrough success of his guest star studded standards albums “When I Fall In Love” and “To Love Again” and his successful 2006 PBS Special and live DVD release. Italia, which quickly hit #1 on the Billboard Jazz chart and was recently Grammy nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Album, is an even greater creative triumph than its predecessors because it applies the basic formula of mixing beautiful, heartfelt instrumentals and lovely vocals to a more exotic and romantic setting. While the previous albums found Botti and his producer Bobby Columby applying the trumpeter’s Midas touch mostly to Great American Songbook standards, Italia draws on a multitude of unique sources—and includes a few Botti co-penned originals that deserve to be eventual pop standards to convey the beauty, mystery and magic of Italy. The album came out in the fall, but it would have made a wonderful soundtrack for my first trip to Italy in August!

No 20th century composer better represents Italy than Oscar winning film score legend Ennio Morricone, and Botti begins the collection with a several minute, gently orchestrated piece called “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon A Time In America. The song functions as an overture for an emotionally compelling set that also includes an amazing sweep of Italy centric instrumentals. These include a sweet rendering of another Morricone piece, “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission; the tender and lyrical tribute “Caruso,” a piece composed by Lucio Dalla in 1986 that was dedicated to Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (covered notably over the years by Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli); the dreamy and instantly recognizable “Nessun Dorma,” which comes from the final act of Puccini’s opera Turandot; a moody, summery meditation piece called “Estate,” featuring Billy Childs’ hypnotic piano solo over Dean Parks’ graceful acoustic guitar; and Schubert’s famed aria “Ave Maria,” which wraps Botti’s sensual playing around the inspirational background voices of the St. John’s Choir (Botti often uses the song to open his live shows).

A lively, high hat heavy, coolly swinging cover of “The Way You Look Tonight” doesn’t exactly reflect the Italian theme, but it adds a nice rhythmic energy between the quieter numbers. In addition to these remarkable new interpretations, Botti contributes his own jaunty impressionistic take on one of Italy’s most exciting historic cities, “Venice.” Botti’s hardly aiming for smooth jazz airplay these days, but the easy groove behind the swaying trumpet and dreamy orchestra made it a natural for the format, and one of 2007’s most popular songs at radio.

Botti’s previous traditional minded albums featured a wide array of exciting guest vocalists, from his former boss Sting to Paula Cole and Michael Buble. With Pisa born tenor great and classical crossover legend Andrea Bocelli, Botti made the obvious brilliant choice to sing the album’s title track, which the trumpeter wrote with the great pop composer/producer David Foster. Alternately tender and soaring, this tune fits right into the heart captivating style that has led to superstardom for Josh Groban and Il Divo.

With her crisp and husky sensuality, Cole, who sang “My One And Only Love” on To Love Again, makes “The Very Thought Of You” an urgent romantic plea. Botti adds some nice harmonies and a few solo passages, but wisely lets Cole carry the song. The most remarkable vocal on Italia, however, is “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face,” the beautiful song from My Fair Lady that is rendered here as a Nat King/Natalie Cole style duet with Botti harmonizing and soloing along to perfection with the original 1957 recording by Italian American legend Dean Martin. Adding authenticity to this remarkable slice of musical time travel is the fact that Botti recorded his parts in the same room at Capitol Studios with the same gear as Dino used back then. This unique serenade alone is worth the price of admission.

The fact that Botti is topping the traditional jazz charts and also scoring some airplay, smooth jazz shows, just how expertly his easily rhythmic, supremely melodic style crosses over. For smooth jazz fans that like heavy grooves, Italia may take a while to grow on you—but you will grow accustomed, as it works its subtle, cool charms over the course of a few listens. It’s exciting the way the trumpeter keeps setting the bar higher for himself, and fun to ponder where the road takes him next. But for now, Viva Italia!

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- Jonathan Widran