June 21, 2008

Trumpeter Botti Brings Great Technique, Energy to Pops Concerts

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jun. 21--The Pops was hoppin' Thursday night, the start of a four-performance run featuring popular trumpet stylist Chris Botti. Marvin Hamlisch was in top form at this show, both musically and in his trademark humorous ad-libs.

Botti has established himself as a popular starring figure in recent years and provided ample evidence at Heinz Hall for his success. He's got great technique, which he applies with devotion to the music he loves. He's also a handsome guy and has an endearing personality when he speaks, not that he did enough of that on Thursday night.

The soloist freely acknowledges the influence of jazz legend Miles Davis, and played "Flamenco Sketches" from the album "Kind of Blue." Botti had a small microphone clipped to the bell of his trumpet, which enabled him to create many kinds of special sounds, such as moving smoothly from singing through his instrument to playing the note.

But amplification of Botti was also a bit problematic. At first he was too loud, and the person at the mixing board was prone throughout the concert to keeping the rest of the quintet too low -- especially guitarist Mark Whitfield.

There also was a timbral mismatch between Botti's glamorous sound and the timbre of one of Heinz Hall's duller pianos, despite the superb Billy Childs' best efforts, which included an exciting and organic solo.

Drummer Billy Kilson was a phenom with great hands and great internal time. He got a big hand for a storm of sound he whipped up in one solo, then continued and got more cheering for stunning soft cymbal and drum work. An artist.

The concert began with Hamlisch and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops paying tribute to an American classic with "Irving Berlin Jazz Medley." The players avidly seized the opportunities presented by Torrie Zito's arrangement, one of the best jazzy orchestrations the Pops has offered in a long time.

Next, Cellofourte took the audience by storm, playing its new piece, "Ultimatum," on its own, and then joined by the orchestra for the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby.""Ultimatum" is built on a strong bass line, with an affecting melody and rock accents above. The group is amplified and has a brilliant solution to integrating rock attitudes and sounds with other genres.

The first half concluded with a wonderful tribute to the late arranger Leroy Anderson on his 100th birthday, and included projected video of him introducing his music. It is more than easy-listening music, although it works that way. Anderson's musical wit is utterly delightful to those who pay attention.


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