You can judge jazz trumpeter Chris Botti by the company he keeps — in two senses of the phrase.
To start with, check out a partial list of the musicians he’s performed and/or recorded with: Sting, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Josh Groban, Yo-Yo Ma, Michael Buble, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, John Mayer, Andrea Bocelli, Joshua Bell, Vince Gill, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Frank Sinatra.
Second, count the millions of listeners who have helped Botti achieve the title of largest-selling American instrumental artist since the release of his 2004 album, “When I Fall in Love.”
Both measures suggest Eau Claire Jazz Festival organizers have called on an elite artist to open the event Thursday, April 25, in Pablo Center at the Confluence’s RCU Theatre.
As Botti talked affably by phone about the arc of his career, he combined modesty, enthusiasm and confidence.
Asked how he came to work in genres including jazz, pop, rock and classical, his answer suggested he saw it as a wise career choice.
“I grew up as a jazz musician, obviously,” he said. “When I first moved to New York, it was right when Wynton Marsalis was bursting onto the scene, and I sort of thought to myself, if I go the really traditional, straight-ahead purist route, I’m probably not going to be able to have my own audience somehow because it was being taken up by Wynton at the time.”
Instead, he continued, “I set out to be the jazz musician that popular people would play with.”
That got him into the bands of Simon, Sting and Mitchell.
The next step was working in the classical world with singers such as Groban and Bocelli.
“Then just sort of mixing them all up in a pot is just sort of the way it transpired in the last 15 years or something like that,” he said, chuckling. “But you just kind of put one little brick in front of the next, and pretty soon there’s a yellow brick road.”
In reference to the who’s who of musicians he’s performed with, Botti responded with humility.
“Some of it is just I’ve been around for a long time,” he said. “The Sinatra thing I was 21 years old; what the heck did I know?”
But he did explain the method to his opportunities.
“I will say that with regard to being in Paul Simon’s band or being in Sting’s band — which is like, he turned out to be my best friend — you have to be open to the individuals first and their music and respect and like the person and the music they make,” he said.
Such a philosophy hasn’t been adopted universally in the musical world.
“(Y)ou’d be surprised; a lot of jazz musicians aren’t really interested in playing with other kids in the sandbox,” Botti said. “They just want to do their own thing, and they don’t really have that cooperative, collaborative sort of mentality that I’ve always had, musically speaking.”
He’s quick to clarify his point of view.
“I’m not saying one’s better than the other; it’s just my particular path to go into that.”
There are, however, paths Botti would advise young people not travel.
“(F)or me the No 1 currency of a musician or any artist is respect from your peers,” he said. “If I was able to get that from Sting or from those kinds of people, it would turn itself into opportunities that would be long-lasting for me.”
By contrast, he continued, “Nowadays kids think if they post something on Instagram or YouTube they’re entitled to be superstars. I think that’s a slippery slope, and so I always try to get young people to realize their goal isn’t to be Justin Bieber overnight. Their goal is to impress someone that they’re sitting next to in an orchestra or a band or a teacher or someone that comes in through a master class.”
When Botti is complimented for his musical versatility, he kindly disagreed.
“That’s very nice of you to say — versatile. I think my tastes are versatile. I mean I’m not really playing classical trumpet. It’s just that I’ve always valued playing lyrically, and I’ve always valued my trumpet sound. And so I think I’ve worked so many hours a day to polish that trumpet sound, to make it elastic and sinewy and all that stuff, whatever adjectives you want to use.”
Consequently, he added, “it’s easy to drop that thing into different environments because my musical taste lands there. But I’m not going to go out and play the Hummel Trumpet Concerto and try to outdo some great classical musician, nor do I think it would sound good. There’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors to this stuff.”
The key, Botti said, is to play to your strengths on the concert stage, and he listed what he sees as his assets: “the musicians I surround myself with, the way the show has an arc and a flow to it, and the sound of my trumpet. And the fact that we’re having a great time.”
Those attributes, he said, are why he has been successful, but he noted that his lack of a hit song may mean some don’t realize the entertainment value of his live act.
“When I tell people that we’re coming to do a show, they’re kind of like, ‘Well is it just going to be a trumpet player standing on stage?’”
His point — that’s definitely not what a Chris Botti concert is about.
“It’s incredible, blazing jazz musicians, and the next song people are in tears because they’re moved,” he said. “And then the next song is really great fun and joy, and then the next song is a classical performer.”
That’s why, he said, they get this reaction at every show: “People come up and go, ‘My friend brought me to the show. We had no idea what to expect, and now we’re fans of yours for life and we’re going to come see all the shows.’”
He has gained a loyal following, he said, but added, “it is a little bit of a hurdle for me to get people to take that risk to open up their minds to go to see something that’s not stock.”
One way he overcomes that challenge is through a reliable recipe for success: hard work and his “ability to inflict that work ethic” on his band.
“We’re talking about 17 years, 265 days a year, and I would challenge anyone to say there’s another band that tours as relentlessly and as all over the place as we do,” he said. “We’ll do a one-nighter in Korea. We’ll get on a plane and fly to Korea and the next night play Jacksonville, Fla.”
On the recording rather than performing front, Botti expects to have an album out next year.
He added that he is excited about being signed to the prestigious jazz label Blue Note.
“So I will have been on the three great jazz labels: Verve, Columbia and now Blue Note.”
Botti has some ties to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival. He was a guest artist in 2002, and he attended Indiana University with Robert Baca, artistic director of the festival and UW-Eau Claire director of jazz studies as well as professor of trumpet.
They both learned from noted professor William Adam at Indiana University.
“Bob and I were really close,” he said. “There was a little crew of a few of us that practiced every day together and grew up together studying with (Adam).”
He went on to say he believes Baca is “the main person carrying on his torch of his teaching and kind of the way Mr. Adam (who died in 2013) viewed the world of trumpet playing. And so I think Bob is a great landing place for a young musician, a great trumpet player and a great influence on people.”
For his part, Baca said of Botti: “He is a genuine human being who makes you feel like you are the only one in the audience and is the most talented pop trumpet player I have ever heard, combined with an 11-piece band that, in his words, ‘play way better than he does,’ and he learns from them every performance — truly world class.”
To judge by Botti’s collaborators and record sales, Baca isn’t alone in that assessment.