By Terry Pender
WATERLOO, March 25, 2015 —- The celebrated jazz pianist and composer Robi Botos will celebrate the launch of his latest CD – Moving Forward – with special shows at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto, Upstairs in Montreal and The Jazz Room in Waterloo.
These are the only three venues selected by Botos, and a440/Universal Canada, for the first public performances of this special music.
These shows, and the CD, feature some of the very best jazz artists in the world today – Seamus Blake on tenor sax, Robert Hurst III on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums. Blake, Hurst and Watts have 14 Grammy Awards among them.
“I grew up listening to the bass player and the drummer with different bands, including Branford and Wynton Marsalis,” Botos said in an interview with New City Notes. “They also played in the Tonight show Band with Jay Leno for a long time.”
In October 2012 Branford Marsalis, the saxophone player from the most famous jazz family in North America, was preparing for a show at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Marsalis had played with Botos a few times before, so Botos was tapped for the gig. That is when he met Hurt and Watts, but he was already very familiar with their music.
“So I knew of them and heard their playing a lot,” Botos said. “And Scott Morin, who is my Canadian manager for the label a440, he also loved these guys and knew them already. And when we talked about making an album with U.S. players this time, to get me more international attention, their names came up, and we both agreed it would be a great thing.”
When you want to record a CED with the likes of Hurst, Blake and Watts, one of the hardest parts of the project will be finding a couple of days when they are not gigging, recording or traveling to a show. But Mooring made it happen, and over two days at The Drive Shed Recording Studio on Toryork Drive in Toronto.
Botos wrote all of the material on the CD except for two covers — Closer to You, by the Carpenters, and the jazz standard Softly as in a Morning Sunrise. The CD is full of the influences of jazz, pop, funk, classical and Hungarian or Eastern European Gypsy music.
“It’s all of those,” Botos said. “It is very much a mixture of the stuff I would do in a live show.”
It has been 16 years since Botos arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto with his wife Violet, and two daughters, Dorina and Barbara. Botos sought refugee status. He had fled the persecution of the Romani Gypsies in Hungary. He spoke no English. He had no money. He remembers the exact date — Dec. 6, 1998.
“I wanted to live in a place where we could live without being persecuted and discriminated against,” Botos said. And so I definitely wanted to raise my kids too in a place where you can be whoever you want to be.”
Within a couple of months Botos had met the Toronto-based jazz pianist and composer David Braid. Braid took Botos to some jam sessions at The Rex, and introduced the Botos to the scene. He was gigging right away.
“David Braid was like an angel to me, hooking me up with all kinds of people,” Botos said. “Sometimes I couldn’t even understand what they said, but David was kind of like an ambassador for me.”
A couple of years after arriving in Toronto, Botos’ son Robert was born. He is now 14. During the ensuing years Botos recorded three CDs. His fourth was released Tuesday. A big break for Botos came in 2004 when he won the Montreaux Jazz Festival piano competition. Traditionally, the winner opens for a famous act the following year.
Botos opened for Oscar Peterson at the Stravinsky Hall for the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 2005. Peterson’s bass player, Dave Young, introduced Botos and Peterson back stage. This was huge for Botos. One of the main reasons he wanted to settle in Toronto was because Oscar Peterson lived nearby.
“So it was a life-changing event for me,” Botos said.
Peterson’s middle name is Emmanuel. Botos borrowed that part of the great man’s name for a beautiful song he wrote in Peterson’s honour. It is on his third CD called Friday Night Jazz.
He performed the piece for solo piano before a transfixed audience at The Registry Theatre in downtown Kitchener about a year ago. It was one of those rare moments when the player and the music are so sublime, everyone in the room is transported to an unforgettably beautiful place for a few minutes. The memory can linger forever.
“I started writing it when I was on the way to Montreaux to meet Oscar and open for him, and I basically finished the tune when he passed away,” Botos said.
Shortly after everyone returned to Canada, Peterson started looking for someone to teach his daughter Celine the piano. Botos was tapped for that job, and he went to his musical hero’s house once a week to teach the young woman piano.
“He was extremely nice to me, very encouraging,” Botos said, “and expressed how much he liked my playing. And he encouraged me to keep going in the direction where I am heading, and be myself and do my own thing.”
The musicians on stage with Botos for the Saturday night show at The Jazz Room are among the top players in the world today. It promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime event to hear these Cats live in a small club.
Watts is the only musician to play on every CD by Wynton Marsalis or his brother Branford Marsalis that won a Grammy Award. Tain joined the Wynton Marsalis Quartet in 1981 and left in 1988. He then worked with George Benson, Harry Connick Jr., and McCoy Tyner before joining the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1989. His last Grammy in 2011 was for the Mingus Big Band Live at the Jazz Standard. Watts is based in Brooklyn, New York and is among the most in-demand drummers on the New York Jazz scene.
Blake also lives in Brooklyn, and is a long-standing member of the Mingus big bands. He plays and records with Bill Stewart, Kevin Hays, David Kikoski and Alex Sipiagin and is a member of the Victor Lewis Quintet. He is also a member of BANN. Blake was a member of John Scofield’s Quiet Band.= Blake released Live at Smalls in 2010, to much acclaim. Smalls has near-religious status in the West Village scene, and is a favourite hang for the Cats in New York City.
Hurst is an award-winning composer-performer-and-educator on both the acoustic and electric bass. His recordings have won seven GRAMMY Awards. For eights seasons Hurt was the first bassist for the house band of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for eight seasons. His work in performing, directing, arranging and composing on the NBC program won four EMMY Awards.
Hurst has recorded with Sir Paul McCartney, Charles Lloyd, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, Harry Connick Jr., Terrence Blanchard, Tony Williams, Nicholas Payton, Sting, Carl Allen, Pharaoh Sanders, Barbara Streisand, Willie Nelson, Yo Yo Ma, Ravi Coltrane, Chris Botti and Diana Krall.