Have Yourself a Merry Little Chris-mas...

By Sophia Dilberakis ©2002

Chris Botti and some of his collaborators tell Sophia Dilberakis how they spent part of their summer... recording an album of Christmas songs entitled 'December'. Thanks to Margie Maddox and Bobby Colomby for their photos.

Christmas lights set the holiday mood during June recording session.
©2002 Margie Maddox

It’s midnight in Milwaukee on the first Saturday in August. Despite the hour, the temperature is still in the high 80s with an equally high humidity level. Chris Botti and his band have just headlined an outdoor jazz festival and have, once again, wowed the audience with their musicianship. Incongruously, my car CD player launches into the beginning strains of The Christmas Song with its familiar “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

Although it might seem like a case of sunstroke - it isn’t. I’ve just left Chris Botti’s hotel room with precious cargo - his personal copy of his new Christmas CD, titled December . (He’s tried unsuccessfully to barter with me. His CD in exchange for my copy of Dominic Miller’s new release - New Dawn . I hold my ground and walk away with both.)

With the album having been finished just a few weeks prior and the release scheduled for October 22nd, it’s too early for liner notes or beautifully shot photos. A black marker on the silver CD-R simply says Chris Botti and December . From physical appearance, it almost looks like I’ve walked away with someone’s personal holiday party mix. But I soon discover what comes out of this unadorned disc is anything but that. Chris’ one-of-a-kind, trademark trumpet sound, interwoven with the other brilliantly-played instruments and original arrangements take your breath away within the first minute and hold your attention throughout the 13 tracks.

And for only the second time in his career, he sings. On two tracks, in fact. There’s a beautiful, romantic interpretation of a Christmas classic - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas , plus a never before recorded original composition, Perfect Day (written by Richard Marx and his wife, Cynthia Rhodes Marx). Chris’ vocals on the latter makes you long to spend this holiday season wrapped in the arms of your beloved. And, to be honest, is likely to prompt a female or two to wistfully fantasize that it is the singer’s arms doing the holding.

Almost seven weeks would pass between that hot summer night and interviewing Chris (and several of his collaborators) on the release. As summer turns the corner and fall begins to take control, I can only tell you that December will take on new meaning this year. You will want to make sure that this timeless holiday CD is one of the first things on your gift-giving shopping list.

“December is the month with the greatest amount of emotion. It’s not only about the joy of being with family for the holiday season, but it’s also about being reflective about people who aren’t in your life anymore. There can be comfort in melancholy and it can be such a beautiful time of year,” says Chris Botti.

Shane Fontayne, Jon Ossman,
CJ Vanston, Vinnie Colaiuta,
Brandon  Fields
take a break from recording.
©2002 Bobby Colomby

Chris first got the Christmas album call from Columbia Records in May. Having spent the past two Decembers on a holiday jazz tour, he already had strong ideas about the songs that would work well with the sound of his trumpet. His vision was clear from the outset - to make an album that leaned more toward the beautiful side of the holiday season.

Once again, Chris teamed with Bobby Colomby, acclaimed record producer and long-time friend and mentor. (Most recently, Colomby collaborated with Chris and Kipper as the executive producer on Night Sessions . In addition to his production credits and record industry executive titles, Colomby was also the drummer for Blood, Sweat and Tears between 1967-77.)

“Chris is adventuresome, highly melodic and has the most beautiful trumpet sound I’ve heard in my life,” Colomby says. “My objective when working with an artist is to get as many aspects of their talent, personality and soul on that record. And not only get it there, but get the best of those elements.”

Bobby and Chris met about ten years ago, when Chris was on tour with Paul Simon. “We had similar musical interests and we bonded quickly,” Colomby says.

By the time Chris began work on his third album, Slowing Down the World , Colomby was on board as his producer. It was Colomby who encouraged Chris to record his first vocal track - Same Girl - and it was Colomby, once again, who convinced Chris to give vocals a shot on the Christmas project.

Broaching the subject of the vocal tracks with Chris, one is met with a bit of trepidation and series of amusing analogies. Amidst laughter, he refers to Colomby as the “rat-bastard” who first made him sing - a moniker that Colomby wears proudly.

“I enjoy the tone of his voice. And I am the same rat-bastard that believes he can have a broader career,” Colomby says bantering back.

And then there is the subject of Sting’s singing ability.

“When you’ve been on tour with Sting, and have stood next to one of the best singers in the world, you realize what a small birthday party it really is. And I am not trying to crash the party,” Chris says laughing.

Chris Botti plays a few notes at
Richard Marx's recording studio.
©2002 Bobby Colomby

With the possibility of vocal tracks a subject of continuing debate between Botti and Colomby, the latter placed a call to one of his closest friends - multi-platinum recording artist, songwriter, producer Richard Marx.

In recent years, Marx has concentrated more on songwriting and producing - working with major recording artists such as *NSYNC (writer/producer on This I Promise You ), SheDaisy and Josh Groban. Richard and his wife, former actress Cynthia Rhodes Marx ( Staying Alive, Dirty Dancing ), along with their three sons, live in suburban Chicago.

“This guy can’t help but write. He wakes up with melodies in his head and he’s an incredible singer. So, I called Richard and said, ‘I’m sure you have a Christmas song we can use’,” Colomby explains.

As circumstance would have it, Richard and Cynthia had just finished writing Perfect Day .

“Cynthia and I had only written one song together previously. This was back in the ‘80s when she was singing with a group called Anamotion,” Marx points out.

This past spring Richard came up with a new tune. It featured chord changes in a style that he had rarely used before. He gave it to Cynthia and said, “see what you can come up with.” Cynthia went into the sitting room off of their master bedroom and in short order, came up with the lyrics to Perfect Day . Marx refers to the end result as a “musical photograph.”

Billy Childs, Chris Botti and Bobby Colomby take a break from recording.
©2002 Margie Maddox

Eventually, the song was played for Chris and he fell in love with it. (The song paints a picture of two lovers basking in happiness during the holiday season.)

As for the vocals, Marx puts it succinctly. “A big part of any song is vibe. There are a lot of people that can sing the notes but don’t have a vibe. Chris’ voice is charismatic - just like his playing. And that is something you can’t teach,” he says.

Plans were made for Chris, accompanied by Colomby, to record the two vocal tracks at Marx’s studio right before the 4th of July. But before that would come to pass, the rest of the album would first be recorded in Los Angeles at Capitol Records.

The process began in June, with Chris and keyboardist Billy Childs going to Colomby’s house to work out the arrangements. (Keyboardist CJ Vanston also contributed his arranging talent to the project.)

“We wanted the songs to be recognizable by the melody, but we wanted the treatment to be reflective and sophisticated,” Botti says.

Additionally, Colomby had been adamant that recording take place in L.A. and that the best musicians in the area be used on the project.

Longtime Sting collaborator, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and current Botti Band members - guitarist, Shane Fontayne and bassist, Jon Ossman, were among those that got the call.

Introductions having been made by Sting guitarist Dominic Miller, Botti had first worked with Colaiuta on Night Sessions . Ossman also came on board during the Night Sessions recording, while Chris’ collaboration with Fontayne goes all the way back to his first album - First Wish . (Fontayne also has toured, performed and recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Marc Cohn, Shania Twain, Rod Stewart and Lone Justice, to name a few.)

Guitarist Shane Fontayne in deep concentration.
©2002 Margie Maddox

“We tried to add different spices to the album. For example, we brought Vinnie and Peter Erskine to play drums. We used Shane with his identifiable sound and his ability to give a track such an unbelievable vibe. And then we offset that with Anthony Wilson, a great jazz guitar player. We had great guitar bookends and we filled the blanks in with an orchestra,” Botti explains.

On the subject of working with Chris, Fontayne says, “He is always looking for space in the music and gathers players around him who can play that space. It makes everybody feel good because each person has a moment - not just to shine, but to make a contribution.”

Two different players also were used on saxophone - Brandon Fields ( Little Drummer Boy ) and Bob Shepard ( Santa Claus is Coming to Town ).

And if Botti fans think the recording of Night Sessions went down in lightning speed (ten weeks to write, record and mix) new land speed records were set for December . (Much of Night Sessions was cowritten with keyboardist and producer Kipper, with whom he became friends while touring on Sting’s Brand New Day album.)

“Kipper and I put a lot of thought into being cutting edge with Night Sessions . With December , we were trying to be elegant, classical and kind of jazzy and beautiful. Once you do that the pressure is off. You are no longer trying to think about being hip,” Botti says.

“We cut 13 tracks in three days - with most of them done in two,” Colomby says. “I don’t believe in take 10. If you prepare enough, you already know how good your record is going to be before you set foot in the studio.”

Bassist Jon Ossman listens  to the playback.
©2002 Margie Maddox

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is the only non-holiday track on December and a perfect illustration of the one-take point. Bassist Jon Ossman, who is always looking for innovative ways to do his job, tells the tale of how it was recorded.

“It was the end of a very productive day. We [Shane, Jon and Chris] had been playing across the room from each other and we decided to move our chairs close together. We sat in a tight pod of three. We turned the lights down and we used the vibe of the ambience. It was one of the more special studio experiences for me. It was liquid and really dreamy,” he says.

The First Noel is another track that went down quickly. “It was completely improvised,” Chris says. “Just me and Billy [Childs] and then CJ Vanston wrote the orchestration around it.”

Walking in a Winter Wonderland went down in two takes and O Little Town of Bethlehem was done in three. With Santa Claus is Coming to Town , Chris wanted to do it in a slightly tongue-in-cheek fashion. The end result is a bossa nova-type arrangement that succeeds in bringing a smile to the listener’s face.

On the other end of the spectrum, was Hark! The Herald Angel - the track that gave Chris the biggest challenge. “I think that took about 20 takes,” he says. “The first three notes are the hardest to play. They are so exposed. You need to be jazzy, but not too corny. Those notes have to float out.”

But what about the challenge of getting into the Christmas spirit during the hottest months of the year? All of the professionals involved say it really wasn’t a problem. Because of recording, marketing and promotion timetables, virtually all holiday albums are recorded during non-holiday months. In fact, Mel Tormé and his cowriter, Bob Wells, are said to have written The Christmas Song during July on the hottest day of the year.

Nonetheless, an attempt was made at adjusting the calendar via interior decorating. Small, twinkling Christmas lights were draped around the sound booth and control room to help conjure up the holiday vibe. And although recording holiday music in June didn’t seem to be a problem for the musicians, Chris will admit to a few embarrassing seasonal moments.

“I’m driving around L.A. in my car, listening to mixes. I pull up to a stoplight and I’m listening to Santa Claus is Coming to Town . The guy in the next car had plenty to say about that,” he says, laughing.

With the instrumental tracks completed and the foundation laid for the two vocal tracks, Colomby and Botti flew to Chicago to work with Marx. In between his own touring schedule and planning the Christmas CD, Chris also had taken a few lessons with renowned voice coach Gary Catona. (Catona bills himself as “voice builder to the world” and has an impressive roster of superstar clients including Andrea Bocelli, Seal, Lionel Ritchie, Tony Bennett, Sade and Liza Minnelli.)

“My voice is quite a bit better now than when I recorded Same Girl . But with that said, I’m not trying to be Bocelli or Seal,” Chris says. His main vocal goal for the project was to try to get part of his personality to show through his voice.

Meanwhile, on the shores of Lake Michigan, and with the 4th of July just a few days away, the Marx family got busy with a few holiday props of their own.

“We let each of our boys have a small Christmas tree in their room during the holidays. Cynthia thought it would be a good idea to go up into the attic and bring those trees down into the studio,” Marx says.

Enter yet another amusing anecdote from Chris.

“Remember the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford is being chased by that big, rolling ball? Well that’s kind of how I felt,” says Chris laughing while describing the vocal recording process. “I showed up and Richard Marx basically molded me and spoon-fed me. I was in the best hands possible and I just went along with it. He is such a gifted songwriter,” Chris says.

Both Marx and Colomby have heard the Raiders of the Lost Ark analogy from Chris before. They’ll both tell you he’s being overly modest.

“I’ve always been impressed with Chris’ talent, but I had no idea of the level of Chris’ humility. Those are the kind of people that you want to root for. It’s all about how to get the best we can get and I love this record,” Marx says.

With the recording topics out of the way, Chris is willing to share some additional tidbits. One notable piece of information was a description of the video press kit that has been put together to help support the launch.

“It’s just me and my trumpet being filmed on my balcony playing Hallelujah and there is a big, fat, full moon in the background,” he says.

Chris Botti shares a humorous recording session moment.
©2002 Margie Maddox

Chris also describes the photo shoot for the album. “It was shot at my house in July on one of the hottest days of the year and in one of the shots, I am wearing a black shearling jacket.” He describes the photos as “grittier” than what we’ve seen of late. “You are not going to see a picture of Chris surrounded by presents, sitting on top of a reindeer with a trumpet,” he says laughing.

Now that the record has been in the bag for more than two months, Chris has the opportunity to reflect on the entire project. He sums it up this way.

“I’m really happy with the record. I think it has some of my best - and most adventuresome - trumpet playing to date. It is the jazziest album I’ve ever made. There was room to stretch out and improvise. I’ve practiced my whole life to execute a fine performance in one take. And this one has it,” he says.

© Bottiology .com - This article may not be
reproduced without the express ed permission
Bottiology .com and Sting.com

'December' is released 22 October. Tracklisting is: The Christmas Song / First Noel / Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow / Hallelujah / Perfect Day / Santa Claus Is Coming To Town / O Little Town Of Bethlehem / Winter Wonderland / Little Drummer Boy / Hark! The Herald Angels Sing / Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas / Silent Night /
I'll Be Home For Christmas.

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Last Edited January 12, 2003 Copyright © 2002-03 Bottiology All RIghts Reserved