One of the great advantages of working in music retail is interacting with music fans first-hand. At my place of employment, there’s an Andre Rieu display right next to the cash register, featuring a small cutout of the aged, smiling violinist with some of his live CDs and DVDs. The responses to this display are quite varied: one older man saw it and regaled me with a story of how he saw a concert of Rieu’s in which “everyone was standing on their feet, dancing in the aisles—it was a great time!” One particularly belligerent German woman demands every piece of Rieu’s work that we can possibly order in. Yet there’s one customer—an older, white-haired man in his mid-60s—who always comes in and browses our classical section with a laser focus, filled with unparalleled knowledge in regards to all things Bach and beyond. When he came up to the register and saw the Andre Rieu for the first time, he said, “That’s just ridiculous. He shouldn’t even be filed in the same section as all those other performers. He’s ‘classical-lite’.”
The same, it could be argued, is true of Chris Botti.
Italia is Chris Botti’s ninth studio album, doubling as his most classical-friendly set to date. Here he covers Schubert and Puccini right next to Lerner and Lowe, and Ennio Morricone as well. On his last album, the enthralling 2005 set To Love Again: The Duets, he managed to balance classicism with playful rigor, collaborating with everyone from Gladys Knight to Michael Bublé. The latter name shouldn’t come as a surprise: Botti can easily be filed as one of those “young superstars” who emerges every so years to make major commercial inroads with watered-down versions of classic genres. Though the technical elements of the young Sinatra clone (Bublé), the young Rubensteins (The 5 Browns), the young Itzhak Perlman imitator (Joshua Bell) and the “popera” singer (Josh Groban) are never in doubt, they still can’t hold a candle to the many traditionalists who have emerged over the years and etched their name in musical history by staying faithful to what history has taught them. Botti is an undeniable trumpet master, and on Italia he makes it sound as effortless as ever. Yet never has he so blatantly made a direct stab at the Adult Contemporary market, with an album of songs that work great as NPR transition music but little else.
If you’ve heard a Chris Botti recording before, then you don’t even need to hear his rendition of “Ave Maria” to know how it sounds. In fact, through a majority of Italia‘s renditions, one can’t shake the feeling that the “Kenny G” principle is in full effect: boiling down a song’s essence so that one instrument can be the focal point, leaving little else to the imagination. This is most apparent on the Morricone covers: “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America and “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission. The backing orchestrations are so lush and pitch-perfect, they practically drain the energy. The only thing that ultimately distinguishes the two is the near impossible high-note that Botti hits at the climax of “Deborah’s Theme”. Part of the problem is context: Italia is locked in a perpetual low-tempo groove, making the songs gradually shift together, making them largely indistinguishable from each other. When an up-tempo number appears, like the album highlight “The Way You Look Tonight”, it practically steals the rest of the album away.
Not forgetting the lesson of his duets album, Botti snags three vocalists to further the musical diversity. Andrea Bocelli guests on the title track; though his voice is always beautiful, the production of the track itself is co-helmed by David Foster (of “My Heart Will Go On” fame), who produces it within an inch of its life. Even Bocelli’s vocal climax feels a bit washed-out. Paula Cole, who appeared with Botti on his duet album, returns with “The Very Thought of You”, which comes across as a first-rate Broadway ballad. However, you have to hand it to Dean Martin to still provide the zest: his take on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is filled with a Vegas-lounge vibe, and it’s in this environment that Botti sounds completely at home, automatically making it the most fully-realized track on all of Italia. The swing’s the thing, baby.
Yet on an album that’s full of widescreen genericism, it comes as a surprise that one of the best tracks is a Botti original: the unassuming “Venice”. Riding a light drumbeat, Botti’s backing arrangement supports his trumpet mighty well, perfectly meshing his in-bred jazz aesthetic with a classical lenience. It’s a moment that all the other songs are trying to achieve, but simply fall short of. He has chops that can be used to amazing effect, but if he keeps watering his talents down with overblown, generic arrangements, then the distance between the commercial Botti and the credible one is just going to get bigger and bigger. “Jazz-lite”, indeed.