Ask trumpet player and Sting band member Chris Botti how his new album, Night Sessions, came to be the rhythmic, atmospheric evocation of a late-night, smoke-filled jazz club and he will tell you about the initially inauspicious but ultimately fortuitous circumstances of limited time, homelessness and a swimming pool.
Botti had been on the road for two years with Sting in support of Brand New Day when a ten-week break began. “During the whole course of the Sting tour, I’d been sort of homeless, living out of hotels,” he says, “and still am.” So with some time on his hands and nowhere to go, Botti — along with producer Kipper (Brand New Day) and Sting’s guitarist and drummer, Dominic Miller and Vinnie Colaiuta — recorded Botti’s fourth record and first for new label, Columbia Records. “We rented this house in the Hollywood Hills and just worked out of that location for ten weeks,” Botti says. In fact they were under such time constraints that Columbia Records relinquished the typical practice of asking their new signee to submit demos. “They just let us do our thing — an unusual move for a record company.”
Now for the swimming pool: With ten weeks to not only write but to record an album, Botti and company soon became aware that workers were installing one two houses down the road. “They were working all day long, from nine in the morning until five in the night,” Botti says. “It was noisy all day. We didn’t know this when we rented the place,” he adds, “so we couldn’t really start recording during the day. And everything just got shifted until after they stopped at five in the afternoon, into the night.” Working through the night, overlooking the lights of the L.A., what Botti describes as “a romantic, sensual album” emerged. And that, he says, “led to the title Night Sessions.”
Growing up in Oregon listening to R&B (the O’Jays) and jazz (Herbie Hancock), Botti enrolled in the Indiana University music program. After a move to New York, where he became “deeply entrenched in the jazz world,” working with saxophonist George Coleman and trumpet great, the late Woody Shaw, Botti became a session musician, playing for Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin. But the real defining moment in his career came when he heard Peter Gabriel’s So. “At that time,” Botti says, “I set out to marry my jazz background to what I came to really like as an adult — that world/English production, whether it be Sting or Peter Gabriel or some of the stuff that U2 does. That layered atmospheric approach appealed to me.”
On Night Sessions, Botti makes these jazz and pop worlds collide. “My music certainly isn’t spur-of-the-moment jazz, but it’s instrumental by nature, so it’s not a complete pop album,” he says. “The influence of the harmony, the production techniques are more pop, then add me in the mix and that’s the jazz — so there you get the middle ground.”
In that middle ground Botti finds everything from the melodic opener “Lisa” to the funky “Streets Ahead” to “All Would Envy,” the purest pop song on the record, a vocal track written by Sting and sung by Shawn Colvin.
Kipper had played Botti a demo of “All Would Envy,” a leftover from the Brand New Day sessions, during a tour stop in Rio De Janeiro. “Sitting there in Rio, I’ll never forget that,” Botti says. “It’s such a great, great vibe on that song and the lyrics, the story line — it’s just like a little movie the way [Sting] tells it. It’s about this older affluent gentleman who falls in love with someone half his age and how on the outside the trappings look amazing to this young woman. But as she gets more involved in this relationship, she sort of realizes that those trappings are the things that imprison her. And Sting just roles out this story in such a classic way. I thought maybe it would be interesting to hear this story told by a woman.”
A Colvin fan, Botti approached the singer, and she agreed immediately. “For someone to sing an unreleased Sting song and with Sting’s blessing — it’s hard to say no to that,” Botti says. En route from Egypt back to the States, Botti stopped by Colvin’s Austin, Texas home for her to record her vocals. “This song makes her a crooner in the style of Frank Sinatra,” he says. “The real long phrases that she has to sing . . . and it’s Brazilian in flavor, which she hasn’t done much of. I think even a Shawn Colvin fan might not know it’s her. I think it adds to the surprise of the song.”
Botti’s previous records have featured guest vocals from Sting, Edie Brickell, Jonatha Brooke and Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile. He says that vocal tracks provide “a break” from his trumpet, but maintains that “All Would Envy” “still sounds like rest of the record and fits.”
As a jazz player who flirts with pop and whose music is often a vocal away from being defined strictly so, it’s an important point. “I do feel caught between two worlds,” Botti says. “But, quite possibly, that’s what makes me different. Right there, in the middle, between those two camps, I feel most at home.”