It’s a beautiful night at the Hollywood Bowl, even more so than usual as the Super Moon looms overhead, projecting a silver light over the town that popularized the silver screen. Chris Botti and his trumpet arrive on stage to front the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his smoothly executed jazz spanning sub-genres and presented with capital “P” Personality. His band is first-rate, featuring particularly incredible drumming on a tighter-than usually-aligned kit.
Botti brings out a series of special guests, all fantastic in their own right, ranging from soaring, operatic vocals of George Komsky on Andrea Bocelli‘s version of “Time to Say Goodbye” to a strikingly beautiful and barefoot featured violinist (Caroline Campbell), to Sy Smith‘s anniversary night dedication of “Let’s Stay Together” to her husband. Jazz purists will undoubtedly note his nods towards popular appeal vs. purity, even as they marvel at the expressive beauty of his trumpet’s tone. Their 50-minute set takes turns highlighting the various members of his band as the LA Phil provides backing ambiance, each punctuating the evening with their own brilliance.
Chris Isaak and his iconic band emerge, Isaak in a bespoke and bejeweled black outfit, somewhat tame by his standards and undoubtedly a nod to the standards of his extended backing “band.” They start their portion of the evening with “Best I Ever Had,” a country-inflected toe-tapper. They rouse the crowd’s noses from their boxed meals and stemware, injecting the pep of popular music with a loose familiarity that belies the tightness of the band itself. As the final note sounds, a guitar tech sprints from stage right, exemplifying Isaak’s expectations and setting up the evening’s first crooner, a melancholy lamentation of lost love. The orchestral addition of the LA Philharmonic on “You Don’t Cry Like I Do” adds an almost 70s feel, something a bit Karen Carpenter-ish, a bit James Bond-ish.
Isaak gets personal and self-deprecating, complimenting the virtuosity of the well-trained musicians behind him and noting that he can’t read music. He pays the years of day-by-day dedication backing him their due, drawing one of many laughs when he informs them that they’ve finally earned their reward …. backing up a hillbilly from Stockton, CA. Regardless of the limitations of his formal musical training and the truth underlying his well-timed jokes, he can write it and play it with the best of them.
Isaak can walk and chew gum, as well, promenading into the crowd as he sings “Don’t Leave Me On My Own.” His sojourn causes women to swoon as their guys nod with grudging respect at his powerful and well-practiced charisma. He never loses a beat as he scales stairs, touching hands and making eyes with his audience, reducing middle-aged women to schoolgirls with a glance both bashful and brash.
His delicate vocals on “Somebody’s Crying” give way to a soaring surge of certainty. Lush orchestrals back him on one of the iconic songs in the American songbook, “Wicked Game.” His vocal vibrato is echoed in the guitar, hushed backing vocals enhancing the wistful gravity of the moment. As the evening air cools down noticeably, the song’s beautiful lament gives the audience chills.
Baja Sessions‘ “Only the Lonely” takes us a bit south in both time and geography. The track has always served to highlight Isaak’s vocal range and dexterity, and this rendition provides proof of its ongoing resiliency. It’s a particularly poignant song in this setting, proximate to Mexico and full of people who can’t find happiness despite their voluminous and innovative efforts.
They again change the mood, wild dueling drum solos ending “San Francisco Days” and segueing into “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing,” the orchestra fleshing out the sound as its propellant bass groove instinctively brings to mind one of Nicole Kidman‘s more memorable scenes on celluloid. The song highlights their allegiance to early rock and roll roots…including a brief organ interlude that brings to mind a certain LA band that did a few bad things in their time.
Their last track with the Philharmonic is the haunting “Forever Blue,” again shifting gears. The harp provides a nice addition as the song fades into the blue backing light, a feeling of cathartic release washing over the amphitheater.
The platoon of classically-trained musicians exit, traded en masse for one superstar as Botti reappears. As a splash of Mexican brass (“Besame Mucho”) gives way to “Love Me Tender,” Botti’s depth of emotivity is particularly impressive in the softer parts, a skill he displays again on “Blue Spanish Sky.” They close with “Big Wide Wonderful World,” both lead performers displaying a bit of that Dean Martin ethos, a touch of American classicism to go with their devilish demeanors.
We’ve spanned generations of music in a night, and the assembled can’t help but leave with smiles on their faces and a spring in their step. On a beautiful Friday night under the Super Moon something timeless occurred: superior talent and wit combined to provide a retro-styled exercise in pure entertainment.