Love it or hate it, the "Smooth Jazz" phenomenon has all but taken over the genre, at least in terms of mainstream appeal. Chris Botti, Kenny G., Dave Koz, Najee -- if you've never heard one of these instrumentalists interpret the classics with their New Age-y musical stylings, then somehow you've managed to avoid riding in an elevator over the last decade or so. Combined, they're a commercial force to be reckoned with, having sold a gazillion CDs, and commanding what seems to be the musical entirety of the far corners of the radio dial. But whether you consider their work a fresh take on a commercially impoverished musical genre or a cynical repackaging for the Oprah Book Club set, one thing's for sure: all those "Best of Smooth Jazz" CD collections on the racks of your local Starbucks are here to stay.
Truth be told, it's probably unfair to lump Botti in with such critically-despised contemporaries as Kenny G. and (heaven help us) John Tesh. He may be a bit bland for younger audiences, but his reverence for the material and love of his instrument is obvious, while his Sinatra-esque wit and rakish good looks seem to reduce normally-composed soccer moms into swooning, giggling schoolgirls.
In 'Chris Botti Live with Orchestra and Special Guests,' Botti doesn't mess with his formula for success. Originally broadcast in PBS this past March, this show is never anything less than a classy, black-tie affair -- not just in terms of sartorial splendor, but musically as well. While Botti certainly doesn't take any risks with his chosen catalog of fail-safe classics -- "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Pennies From Heaven," "Are You Lonesome Tonight?", "My Funny Valentine" -- he also never fails to deliver anything but flawless, gorgeous renditions. Simply put, his musicianship is breathtaking in its purity and cleanliness.
As a filmed event, 'Chris Botti Live' is no less straightforward an affair. It may lack the narrative interludes and creative staging of a 'Tony Bennett: An American Classic' (another flamboyant, flashy television extravaganza that recently hit Blu-ray), but Botti is not unaware of his rather static stage presence, and wisely calls upon an impressive range of special guests to keep tedium at bay. Sting shows up to offer polite accompaniment on two numbers, including a humorous take on "My Funny Valentine," while the unlikely pairing of Burt Bacharach and Paula Cole surprise with inspired interpretations of "The Look of Love" and "My One and Only Love." But easily stealing the show are Jill Scott and Gladys Knight, who both bring a fire lacking in the rest of the show by infusing their respective numbers "Good Morning Heartache" and "Lover Man" with some welcome diva posturing.
The complete tracklisting is: 01. "Someone to Watch Over Me" / 02. "When I Fall in Love" / 03. "A Thousand Kisses Deep" / 04. "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" / 05. "Good Morning Heartache" / 06. "My One and Only Love" / 07. "The Look of Love" / 08. "Cinema Paradiso" / 09. "Pennies From Heaven" / 10. "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" / 11. "Lover Man" / 12. "My Funny Valentine" / 13. "Why Not" / 14. "One for My Baby"
Sony BMG presents 'Chris Botti Live' in a 1080i/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, and it is another winner from the studio. They continue to impress with their growing library of Blu-ray releases, including such impeccable presentations as the aforementioned 'Tony Bennett: An American Classic,' 'John Legend: Live at the House of Blues' and 'Incubus Alive at Red Rocks.' With just one caveat, this disc easily ranks up their with their best-looking presentations.
Recorded live entirely with high-definition cameras, 'Chris Botti Live' has that predictably photo-realistic, incredibly three-dimensional appearance typical of HD video. The source is pristine, with excellent deep blacks and beautifully controlled and consistent contrast. Colors are incredibly vivid but absolutely stable -- rarely do such rich reds and blues hold so stable and firm with no noise or smearing. Detail is also excellent, with the numerous close-ups of Botti's sweaty cheeks revealing every last wrinkle and line in his skin, and an unfortunate amount of caked-on make-up. Given the program's relatively short 89-minute runtime, the video gets plenty of bits to stretch out with, and there are no obvious compression issues.
The one issue I found, however, is some intrusive stair-stepping. Even allowing for any 1080i/p upconversion problems in the hardware chain, the jaggies are more apparent here than I've become used to with similar HD video. It's obvious on everything from the circular contrast accents on the drum kit cymbals, to the bass player's ugly striped shirt. The presentation is ultimately strong enough to surmount this annoyance, but it still keeps 'Chris Botti Live' from ranking as an absolute reference-quality Blu-ray transfer.
As good as the video is, the audio is even better. Sony offers up an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track encoded at a whopping 96kHz/24-bit/13.8mbps, and simply put, this one's flawless.
The level of detail and realism to the mix is extraordinary -- fine sonic textures and shadings sound exquisite, especially if you turn the volume up to a decent level. Placement of individual instruments in specific channels is also picture-perfect, and the slight bleed to the back is transparent. Granted, the rears are not engaged for much more than crowd noise, but with a show like this, brow-beating bombast would have been completely wrong. Dynamics are also first rate, with incredibly tight and supple low bass and the clearest vocals I've heard on any next-gen release. 'Chris Botti Live' easily sets a reference-standard.
'Chris Botti Live' continues to impress with its supplements package, which is a lot more substantial than is found on most music titles. Also a nice touch is that all of this video footage is presented in 1080i/MPEG-2, and generally looks good.
The centerpiece is the 30-minute special "Chris Botti Live: Behind the Scenes." This is a very strong peek backstage that includes extensive interviews with Botti, as well as most of the big guest musicians. Granted, the amount of Botti back-patting here can be intense to the point of being annoying, but this one's still certainly worth watching, if only for the amusing bonus footage of Botti serenading Sting's wife Trudi Styler with "My Funny Valentine," to the mock-rage of her husband.
Two additional vignettes include the 19-minute "Interview with Chris Botti," which apparently is the rest of the chat featured in the main doc, and "Meet the Musicians" which runs 10 minutes and focuses on Botti's impressive touring band.
Last but not least is a bonus song, "Message in a Bottle." This one's an invigorating, funky little take on the Police classic, made all the more timely given Sting's 2007 reunion tour with his famous old bandmates. The singer and Botti also offer an optional introduction to the deleted track, which includes a cute story about how they first met.
'Chris Botti Live' does a fine job of capturing the trumpeter's pleasant, classy pop-jazz stylings. Granted, the staging here is pretty dry, but the impressive roster of guest talent (including Sting, Gladys Knight and Burt Bacharach) elevates the evening into something memorable. As a Blu-ray release, this one is quite impressive, with a sharp transfer and perhaps the best uncompressed PCM track I've heard yet. There's even a better-than-average supplements package, all for a low list price of $19.95. If you're a Chris Botti fan, don't miss this disc.