GRAMMY-nominated saxist reveals the genesis behind his new album, Summer Horns, and collaborating with Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot
An early pioneer of smooth jazz, eight-time GRAMMY-nominated saxist Dave Koz released his self-titled debut album in 1990, which climbed to No. 4 on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. He followed with several releases that charted in the Top 5 on the jazz chart, including Lucky Man (1993), Off The Beaten Path (1996), December Makes Me Feel This Way (1997), The Dance (1999), and A Smooth Jazz Christmas (2001), the latter of which earned Koz his first GRAMMY nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Saxophonic was released in 2003 and earned Koz a second GRAMMY nomination. Koz has since earned three additional nominations for Best Pop Instrumental Album, including most recently in 2012 for Live At The Blue Note Tokyo.
In addition to his recording career, for the past 18 years Koz has hosted the syndicated “Dave Koz Radio Show,” a weekend program that features Koz interviewing top artists and playing his favorite music. He also hosts the annual Dave Koz & Friends At Sea cruise, and for the past 19 years has served as a global ambassador for the Starlight Children’s Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of seriously ill children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Koz is currently on tour in support of his latest release, 2013′s Summer Horns, a 12-track album that includes covers of jazz, funk and R&B classics featuring contemporary jazz saxists Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, all of whom have joined Koz on tour. In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Koz discussed the genesis behind his new album, recording “Take Five” in tribute to the late Dave Brubeck and his current tour.
What was the genesis of the Summer Horns project?
I was fascinated by horns even before I picked up an instrument. The first album I bought with my own money was Tower Of Power’s Back To Oakland. I played it until I wore it out. The minute I heard the horn section I wanted to play a horn and chose sax because of Lenny Pickett’s work on that record. I started playing in 1976, when I was 13. The music my brother and sister filled the house with was all Sly & The Family Stone, Tower Of Power; Earth, Wind & Fire; Blood Sweat & Tears; James Brown; Kool & The Gang; and the Ohio Players. It was the golden era for bands with horn sections and that music had a huge impact. I’ve been preparing this album in my head since I picked up the sax 38 years ago. I don’t think there’s ever been an album paying tribute to those great horn bands.
Why did you choose Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair as collaborators?
They’re my three favorite sax players. We’d never played together, they have over 150 years of experience between them and they all share my passion for this music. I was thinking, “How about we play all the horn parts on sax instead of brass?” When we did the first track, all of us playing side by side in one room, we had no idea if it would work, but when we heard that blend of voices, we all started smiling. We locked into a sound and that was the building block of the album.
How did you keep the project from being an exercise in nostalgia?
The question was, “What do you do with a perfect song?” You can’t improve on it, so you have to reimagine it in a 2013 vein. [The four of us] had spirited conversations on what songs to record, then went in and played them with a lot of love and respect. We had a great producer, Paul Brown, who helped us get the right takes and arrangers who understood how important the sound was. We had Greg Adams, who was the horn arranger for Tower Of Power, Tom Scott and Gordon Goodwin, who won a GRAMMY for [Best Instrumental Arrangement in 2011]. Together we found the right balance of tipping our hat to the songs with a new approach that will inspire people to revisit the songs.
Tell us about Goodwin’s arrangement for “Take Five.” It seems like an atypical choice for the album.
That came out of discussions we had last September, when we were trying to hone down the list to 12 songs. [Dave] Brubeck had just died. “Take Five” was one of his signature tunes and it was written by Paul Desmond, an unsung hero of the sax. I wanted to do a tribute to Paul and Dave and thought about doing the song with a stand-up bass and four saxophones. I called Gordon and he said, “I got it.” It was a challenge for us to play the interlocking melodies with no rhythm section. You really have to up your game. When you’re standing next to your colleagues, you don’t want to be the one to screw up. It took a lot of effort, but it’s a real centerpiece for the album.
The four of you are currently on tour in support of the album. What can the fans expect?
We have a super band made up of players from our individual groups and we’ll be doing most of Summer Horns, with a bit of our own music cycled in. All the songs are hits and people love the show. … We only agreed to do this one album and tour, but it’s been such a success, it may have a life beyond the summer.
By J. Poet / GRAMMY.com
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)