TURLOCK — You look at the man with the horn, his fair features and curly blond hair, and wonder how Chris Botti can be seen as a polarizing figure in jazz.
As a player and composer with such obvious ability, as one of the genre's all-time best-selling recording artists, shouldn't Botti who is playing the Turlock Community Theater on Sunday be carrying the banner for jazz?
His fans embrace his light and oh-so-accessible style. Critics, and often musicians who perform toward the other end of the jazz spectrum, would like Botti to spend more time challenging his craft.
"It's interesting, because most jazz critics are so thankful that there's a kind of jazz a kind of jazz that's reaching a mass public, without being dumbed down," Botti said in an interview with jazztimes.com.
"Somebody could take potshots at me, easily, and say 'Chris Botti is trying to rip off Miles Davis.' And I'll be going: 'Hey, guess what, guys? I'm trying to rip off Miles Davis!' I'm not trying to hide that fact. But what I think I've done is present this kind of music to a large audience. And that, in turn, can only help jazz, too."
There is a reason for the controversy. Botti is the reigning prince of smooth jazz, often denigrated as the down-the-FM-dial, Weather Channel-background, all-Kenny-G-all-the-time pablum of the airwaves. Some of Botti's music, particularly his early studio work, comes off as embracing that aspect.
And that's where Botti fostered his fan base through a studio sound right at home when played at low volume when the in-laws come over for dinner.
But turn it up, even those early albums, and you'll find much, much more than a soothing groove that won't loosen your earwax. There was always something extra going on if one took the time to listen, and that's what Botti lets loose in his live shows.
"My albums are very contained and not so risky," Botti said. "And for a reason. I like records that kind of chill you out and make you feel a certain way.
"The shows are much, much different from my albums. The band is so important with that. They're such good musicians, and I give them a lot of freedom. That's why the thing sort of breathes differently every night. Not in what we play, necessarily, but in how it's approached. With these kinds of jazz musicians, the best thing to do is give them complete freedom and then hang on."
But there is a problem with that approach, too. If all a fan of post-bop jazz gives Botti is an hour with his studio disc, that fan will have no problem walking away.
With rare exception, however, not only is that harder-edged jazz difficult to capture in the studio, it won't sell.
So Botti has found a way to please neither camp fully by pleasing both partially. Fans of Botti's smoother style might be uncomfortable in his live performance since at times it meets the criteria of being challenging.
Meanwhile, fans of a harder jazz style might not go near Botti's studio work, but certainly will have their needs met by Botti's live show.
Is that polarizing? By definition, it might better be described as unifying.
"I think if we were to do a record where we were taking it out like (the live show) the audience might feel like, 'Whoa, what's going on?' But when you're sitting there watching it, when you see these incredible musicians express themselves, I think you get taken over by the energy of the thing.
"People are just blown away by it. That's very gratifying to me that we're somehow crossing over in a way to a large audience but we're not dumbing down the music."
Brian VanderBeek can be reached at (209) 578-2150 or follow him on Twitter, @modestobeek
WHAT: Chris Botti
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Turlock Community Theatre, 1574 E. Canal Drive
CALL: (209) 668-1169