It was Halloween when I called Dave Koz at his office in Beverly Hills to talk about his upcoming Christmas Tour that includes a stop at the Ferguson Center on Wednesday, December 4th.
“When Halloween comes,” he laughed, “Christmas is already here.”
The saxophonist has done a holiday tour annually since releasing his first album of yuletide favorites, December Makes Me Feel This Way, in 1997.
“It’s a little nuts,” he said, “but it’s a great source of pride that we’ve been able to continue doing this for so many years in a row. Every year it changes a lot, and there’s a constant flow—a mix of new and familiar that keeps people coming back. The same feeling is there, whoever’s on stage, of warmth and family and friendship and hope and inspiration. That’s what we try and put into the show every year.”
Because he’s become so identified with the songs of the season, I wondered if Christmas music had a special connection for him growing up.
“It’s funny that you should bring that up,” he replied. “I grew up as a Jewish kid. We celebrated Hannukah in my family. There wasn’t a Christmas tree and there wasn’t Christmas music around. But, funny, I don’t know why—I always loved Christmas songs. Probably because I started playing saxophone when I was thirteen, and these are such great songs: their melodies, harmonic structure and emotional quality. How many times have we heard these songs—‘White Christmas,’ ‘Let It Snow,’ ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘The Christmas Song’—we’ve heard them so many times and yet every year we want to hear them again. That’s a tribute to the quality of music. So that’s probably why they captured my ear at a young age and why, so many years later, I’m still interested in playing them.
“Even though I end up playing the music for a steady one-month time period, I play it every night. And then we’re out and about in the world—hotels, restaurants and stuff—you talk about complete and utter marinating in the music. I never get tired of it. The songs are that good.”
Another batch of songs that are “that good” to Dave Koz are those produced by the “horn bands” of the 1970s. His most recent release, Summer Horns, served as a tribute to that era. The first album he ever bought was Back to Oakland, by Tower of Power.
“The horn section is what really got me,” he said. “When I heard the power of that, a lightbulb went off in my head. That was the musical DNA for me. And then following that up with bands like Earth, Wind & Fire; Chicago; Blood, Sweat & Tears; a lot of the Sly and the Family Stone stuff; Kool and the Gang. This was the music that I grew up listening to constantly.”
To pay homage to that music, he rounded up fellow saxophonists Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair and Richard Elliott:
“We didn’t know until we showed up to record the first day what our sound was. We just said ‘let’s try this thing.’ We’d already agreed to do an album and a tour before we even knew what we sounded like as a section. I was concerned because we are all soloists. Even though we’ve had experience playing in horn sections, once you get known for being a soloist playing on your own, it’s not as easy to blend with others. But from the minute we recorded, it was like ‘OH! That’s a sound.’ It just worked so beautifully and so easily. That record was made in a matter of days. It was the quickest record I’ve ever made.
“When you’re in a room with three of your colleagues whom you respect, you can’t screw up. You’ve got to make sure you bring it every day. We were all egging each other along to be the best we could be. It was like a true collaboration, something we can be proud of for many years to come. We were shooting for a timeless tip of the hat, respect to the people on whose shoulders we stand nowadays.”
Over the last two and a half decades, Dave Koz has stood tall on those shoulders, building on the music made by the instrumental giants of the recent past.
“I got exposed to everything,” he said. “My parents were listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Dean Martin was probably my favorite growing up; he was so cool. My sister was listening to Peter Frampton and Chicago. My brother was more of a progressive rock listener. Because I took improvisation lessons as a kid, I got exposed to people like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley. I got immersed in many different styles of music.
“But what I loved, loved, loved more than anything was the horn bands and people like David Sanborn, Tom Scott and Grover Washington, Jr. They were more melodic, contemporary players who used their instruments like voices singing songs. They connected to me on a very soulful level. When it came time for me to explore my own musicality, that’s where it was most comfortable for me to live. They were adventurous players, amazing soloists and virtuosos on their instruments, but they knew how to be on that divide of not playing too little, but also not playing too much. They knew how to please musicians and those who are not musicians.”
Kind of like Koz himself. For this year’s Christmas outing, his “friends” include pianist Keiko Matsui, singer-guitarist Jonathan Butler and vocalist Oleta Adams.
“This is the first time we have had two guys and two ladies,” he said. “When you look at the stage, it’s kind of a Benetton ad. There’s something for everybody on this one!”