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Review: Energetic band keeps 'smooth jazz' in check

If you don’t know his music, maybe you’ll remember his face. Chris Botti is something of a day-time TV fixture, a modern-day Ed McMahon, except definitely prettier (he’s been one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People), and much handier with a trumpet.

If you don’t know his music, maybe you’ll remember his face. Chris Botti is something of a day-time TV fixture, a modern-day Ed McMahon, except definitely prettier (he’s been one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People), and much handier with a trumpet. And if his set Monday night at the Royal Theatre was any indication, he’s smooth enough to work any audience.Botti spent the first part of his career honing his chops as a touring trumpet for hire. He’s accompanied Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Sting. He’s even worked with Frank Sinatra (he dropped out of college to do it, he told the audience).In some ways, it’s hard to imagine him in the background. All it took was a few extended lung-breaker notes on opener Ave Maria, and the ladies were yelping. The gents, too — breathless no doubt from his piercing trumpet, clear and controlled enough to leave your ears tingling.Mind you, it’s when Botti’s in the background that he’s the smoothest. He’s an exceptionally gracious bandleader, giving plenty of space — whether that means literally taking the sidestage to dig them from the wings, or riffing with them mid-song — for his talented band to cook. The band keeps him from getting quagmired in that “smooth jazz” Kenny G. style that his music is often criticized for. The program of old favourites led him into risky territory. Familiar jazz standards from When I Fall in Love to My Funny Valentine and pop instrumentals such as Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah are always crowd pleasing, but often bland. But the fun Botti’s band was having on stage made up for it. During the second song, When I Fall in Love, Botti began with a melodramatic trumpet solo. It was perfect for the many couples canoodling in the theatre, but that’s about it. His tempo switched as soon as drummer Billy Kilson’s sticks hit the snare. Kilson looked like he was dancing behind his kit, his legs like rubber and his sticks moving so fast it looked like he was swatting his drums with fans. Soon, Botti was joining him with a screaming rat-a-tat trumpet. Those sort of surprises made the night. So much for the elevator music.