Dave Koz: The Born Collaborator

Smooth jazz saxophonist, radio show host and cruise majordomo adds singer to his job description and talks about his upcoming Smooth Jazz Christmas tour

Dave Koz didn’t particularly want to sing on his latest album, Hello Tomorrow on Concord Records, but he had fallen in love with the idea of including a remake of Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You” on that record. “So I took it to my producers [Marcus Miller and John Burk] and they said, ‘Yeah, we love that song but, you know, are you going to sing it?’ And I said, ‘What? I’m not really a singer!’ and they said, ‘Well, neither was Herb—so you’re singing it!’”

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Dave Koz

So now we can add singer to Koz’s already lengthy resume of job titles within the smooth jazz genre (though he had already recorded one vocal tune on an earlier record). The saxophonist also hosts a nationally-syndicated radio show, as well as a very successful cruise. And he’s appeared as a guest on numerous TV shows. He’s currently getting ready for his Smooth Jazz Christmas tour with Brian Culbertson, Candy Dulfer and Jonathan Butler. It seems as if he’s cultivated a multi-faceted profile for himself, perhaps as a form of strategic leverage in tough economic times, but Koz says that all that diversification was not part of some larger master plan for his career. “I think it was like ADD more than anything,” he says, laughing. “I get bored easily and I like all those challenges. The cruise for example is a great challenge because it’s like programming a network for a week, every hour of every day—coming up with something for people to do. I love that.”

His new album Hello Tomorrow reflects that restless creative urge, starting of course with his own foray into vocals in the remake of Alpert’s improbable hit of 1968. It turns out that Koz was a big fan of both the song and the singer. He had first played it at a special event honoring its co-composer Burt Bacharach. “I played it on the alto sax,” he recalls, “and the power of that melody was made very clear to me.” But the song’s lyrics also connected with Koz. “I love the message of that song for right now because there is so much intolerance and so much fear and hate,” he says. “With all these things out there, this is just a beautiful, poignant message of love to put out there into the world.”

Koz, who not long ago came out publicly as a gay man, told JT’s John Murph in an article about the “Gay Aesthetic in Jazz” in the December 2010 issue of JazzTimes, that he hoped the song could be an anthem of sorts for the issue of same-sex marriage or be a wedding song standard. “Yeah, that was the subtext for me of that song. That’s the way I heard it. Obviously for me that’s a big topic, although I’m not in any position right now to get married to anybody. But it’s just a message about love for right now. I just read recently that a lot of Republicans who previously to this point would never be on the sort of pro marriage equality bandwagon are starting to come to the party and so I think this is kind of a foregone conclusion. The train has left the building and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the way of the U.S. as far as marriage equality and that would make me very happy.”

Koz also points to his absolute affinity and deep appreciation for the original singer of that tune. “I think Herb Alpert is one of the unsung heroes of the world, not only for his music but for the incredible philanthropy that he does. He’s my hero. The guy is an ever-evolving, creative spirit which to me is like the ultimate and somebody that I would aspire in my fantasy to be even remotely like.” It’s perhaps no coincidence that Alpert himself was not really a singer and had to be encouraged to do that song. “It fit into so much of how this record unfolded for me—which was, constantly, at every turn, being pushed into my discomfort zone and sort of embracing it and kind of finding that I can do these things.” Koz again credits co-producer Marcus Miller specifically for that impetus. “One of his main mantras for me on this record was just to push me in new directions.”

Nonetheless, Koz readily admits that he’s no budding Al Jarreau. “You know, you don’t have to be a Pavarotti to pull that song off,” he explains. “In fact, it probably works best if you have this vulnerability, that you’re not too sure of yourself because the lyric is so much about that moment when you like somebody and you’re not too sure how they feel about you. If you sing it too confidently, it sort of takes away from the sincerity or authenticity. So I’m pleased with the way it came out, but believe me, I had a lot of help from my producers on that one.”

Koz also got some hands-on input from the primary source, so to speak. “After I got a vocal that I was pleased with, I sent it to Herb just to get his blessing and he called me right back and he said, ‘Look, you’ve got my blessing, but I thought maybe there might be a place for me to play on this.’ And when that actually happened, I have to say I thought that might be right up there with one of my favorite musical experiences of all time—having him [Alpert] play on a recreation of a song that he made a hit over forty years ago.”

Lots of notable jazz players, past and present, have branched off into singing, including Louis Armstrong and Chet Baker, and in recent years, Chris Botti and Kermit Ruffins. In a recent interview for jazztimes.com, Ruffins talked about how singing also gave him a chance to rest his lips during his performances. Although the aforementioned are all trumpet players, Koz likewise has been mixing in the occasional vocal spotlight in his frequent live performances. “I don’t envision doing an all vocal album anytime soon,” Koz says, chuckling. “The one thing is that I have done it live. I just got back from a week of shows at the Blue Note in Tokyo and I sang it there every night so I’ve gotten a little more confident.”

He acknowledges that he still has a ways to go as far as feeling truly comfortable as a singer. “I’ve made a living from playing the saxophone live and knowing how that feels. But it’s weird because no matter how you slice it, being a singer, it’s of a different ilk. As a saxophonist, you have an instrument that, in effect, is separating you from the audience. There’s this piece of metal between your soul and people’s receptors. When you’re singing, it’s so much more personal. If you’re not really a singer, per se, then you want to talk about feeling vulnerable and feeling self-conscious? But that was a good lesson for me to kind of learn and walk through.”

Koz feels his discomfort at trying something new matched his concept for the entire album. “That’s what this whole album is about—embracing a lot of this new stuff that we’re all having to embrace in our lives. This is what it means to be alive in 2010 with the sheer volume of change everywhere you look. So every one of us has to be sort of adaptable to that.”

Koz also collaborates with plenty of “real” singers on this album and in albums and performances of the past. He explains that it takes a different approach as a saxophonist when he’s backing or accompanying singers. “For sure, it’s a very different head space to play where basically you’re the solo voice to support a singer. I’ve found that over the years, musicians that are supporting a singer often play too much—they feel like the need to be heard. And I’ve fallen prey to that many times too. It’s like, ‘Hey, I’m here, don’t forget about me!’ And I’ve found that with more wisdom of age and experience that even just playing an eight bar solo (and that’s about it when somebody’s singing) is fine. It’s really not how many notes you play. It’s exactly how you’re there to support. I had some great teachers about that aspect. One of the biggest teachers was from my first gig— Bobby Caldwell. He’s such a music-oriented singer and he really taught me a lot about the finesse of backing a singer up.”

When asked about some of his favorite singers to work with, Koz, the inveterate multi-tasker, immediately talks about one he hasn’t work with, at least yet. “I’ve gotten a chance to work with some pretty unbelievable folks—singers like Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald and Luther Vandross. But my dream album is to—now this may just be in my head and of course I’ve not talked to her about it—but I would like to re-create the Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley album with k.d. lang. That’s something that’s in my mind. She’s one of my all-time favorites.”

His dream project quickly imagined, Koz moves on to name several other vocalists on his shortlist of favorites. “I love Nora Jones too,” Koz says. “I love those chanteuses. As far as communicators are concerned, there’s Joni Mitchell who is unbelievable. George Benson is so filled with talent too for all these years. I love Maxwell too. And further on the youthful side, there’s this singer that just came out last year named Janelle Monaet—unbelievable, an incredible spirit that just came out of nowhere. It’s like ‘Wow, who’s that?’”

Co-producer Marcus Miller comes from both the jazz and R&B world and in fact has worked with many “dream” singers, including Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack, as well as a few dream instrumentalists such as Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and David Sanborn. Miller’s touch is apparent on the album, particularly on the opening cut which features his jangling loose-change bass anchoring a solid funk groove, overlaid with lead melody and interesting harmonic voicings. Koz says that he had wanted to work with Miller for many years and, although the two have known each other from various gigs and sessions, this album marked their first real collaboration.

“I think when most people—especially jazz musicians or jazz critics—would look at the combination of Marcus Miller and Dave Koz, it might be a bit of a head scratcher,” Koz explains. “But it was exactly what I needed at this point, 20 years into my career. I needed to be pushed and prodded. I needed to work with someone that I had so much respect for and admiration for that I would just be willing to go wherever. And I think that the reason why it worked with Marcus and me is that he and I met in the middle. He was able to have the respect for what I do and the career that I’ve had. So we kind of became partners and met in the middle to create something new for both of us. It was very inspiring to work with him, his work ethic, his sheer musicianship—his casting ability.”

Koz points to the rhythm section that Miller put together for the album as setting the tone for whatever success it might have. With Miller on bass and either Omar Hakim or John Robinson on drums, Koz found himself transported musically. “I was sitting there in the studio playing with the best musicians in the world,” he says. “When you have that rhythm section in the room, there’s such a solidified bottom end and foundation that’s not going to go anywhere. So I found a freedom that I had not experienced before with music because you know that nothing is going to rock that foundation. When you have that foundation that you can really rely on, then you can take a lot more chances and take a lot more risks musically.”

John Burk, longtime producer for Concord Records, was also an important part of the team. “He was kind of like the big idea guy and he kept us focused on the mission statement of this album,” explains Koz. “We basically worked on all that together—what this album was to be. It made the decision-making process a lot easier. Every little decision was put through that sieve of: Does this fulfill our mission statement of what this album is supposed to be?”

Perhaps because of that “sieve” approach, there was plenty of material left of the cutting room floor. “The funny thing I like to talk about that nobody knows is that there are incredible outtakes. I mean there’s an album—at least another sixty minutes of outtakes of music that will never be heard. Or maybe one day it will be heard. But each song that we recorded live, we finished the four minutes or so of the song and then the band wouldn’t stop. All of a sudden when the song was done, Marcus would sort of go someplace else feel-wise and then this other kind of jam would take place for another five minutes. And it killed me because we couldn’t use any of that because, you know, you can’t have thirteen songs at ten minutes each.”

It makes us wonder if Koz has ever wanted to do a straight-ahead jazz record and show jazz geeks that he has mad chops. But the saxophonist doesn’t go for that logic at all. “It would have to flow from something that was authentic, from something I really wanted to do musically as opposed to trying to prove anything,” he explains. “I’m past the point of trying to prove that I can play. I do what I do and it’s different from everybody, thankfully. Everybody’s got their own thing. That’s not the kind of player I am. I have great respect for it and appreciate it so much but when I choose to sit down and make music, all I can really do is do what’s in my heart. But maybe one day."

Actually Koz’s previous album, At the Movies, dabbles a bit with the mainstream sax style, at least the jazz with strings variety. “That record had more of a traditional kind of approach. I loved the symphony. I think it’s just surrounding yourself with musicians to take you on a ride – that was a different ride certainly. But this ride, for Hello Tomorrow, was really more of a groove ride. I think it was the record that I wanted to make since it had been a long time, like seven years, since I had an album with all original material (save for one). But I think that it was not only the record that I wanted to make but that my fans—the ones that have stuck by me, God bless ‘em—wanted to hear too. That made me feel good, because you never really know. You just go to the studio and make the best music you can. Especially now, because, as you know, it’s just such a weird time for our business.”

Indeed the idea of an album concept in this age of singles and online sales seems almost quaint. Koz doesn’t deny that trend, but sees a brighter future once the music industry catches up with the music and its audience. “I think that music is very healthy right now but the music business is kind of in this gulf of trying to figure itself out. It’s on the way but it still seems like the early days of trying to figure itself out. But every business is like that now.”

And speaking of business, Dave Koz, tour organizer, is currently working on logistics and rehearsing for the Smooth Jazz Christmas tour that begins on November 26. And, yes, sometimes it can all be a bit much even for the peripatetic saxophonist. “My head is spinning and I always wonder: Why do I do this to myself? I could just go out with myself but, no, I like to mix it up. I think it’s challenging, and it keeps me fresh and keeps my mind nimble and plus, I’m a just a born collaborator. I have the most fun working with other musicians. I’d get really sick of me if it was just me all the time.”

The idea of doing a tour of Christmas music sounds fine on paper, but if you think about getting in the holiday spirit night after night after night, well, it sounds more like a manifestation of Groundhog Day. But for his part, Koz looks forward to the tour, because of both the music and the presentation. “I do like the music a lot. I enjoy playing it. The music brings out another side of me. Christmas music for some reason is more tenor sax oriented and I’m not really much of a tenor player. I don’t really play it that much but at Christmas time I do and so it kind of gives me a chance to really hone that horn a little bit more. We do a big tour that has its own lights and set and backdrops. It’s the one time of year where we can really put on a show that is very consistent from night to night. We work six nights a week and travel by bus so it’s kind of fun actually.”

Naturally, the veritable jazz elf does get a little worn out with the whole thing, at least physically. “We work hard and at the end of it, people say, ‘What are you going to do for the holidays?’ and I say, ‘I’m going to be in my bed for Christmas time!’ But I love it because people come out to the shows. They’re in such a great mood already, it’s really a very fun time of the year to be out there doing shows because people are sort of predisposed to enjoy themselves.”

The songs themselves are like standards in a way. Koz has a few favorites to perform. “Pretty much every year I do a solo alto sax feature on ‘White Christmas.’ That song gets me. There’s something about that melody that really connects to me and I love playing it. We do a really funky version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ which I really enjoy. And I love listening to Jonathan Butler’s ‘Oh Holy Night.’ That’s like a major highlight for me every year. When he sings that song, it transcends the setting. No matter how many people are in there, they’re completely taken away by that performance of his.”

When he finally does get to his own home for the holidays, Koz says his favorite Christmas songs to spin are not much different than most people’s. “Well, I go for the classics at Christmas time—Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. Nat King Cole would probably be in the number one position. His Christmas album is so frickin’ great. And Mel Torme. I like the Carpenters. And Dean Martin too. Something about that old-fashioned and melodic sound feels right at Christmas time. It’s about setting that atmosphere with nothing too jarring, but to just fill the room with that music. In the more modern era, I think that Harry Connick is channeling that former era very well. He made a great holiday album a few years ago.”

For more information about Dave Koz’s new album, radio show, cruise, Smooth Jazz Christmas tour or any other of his many ventures, you can visit his website.

Dave Koz’s Smooth Jazz Christmas 2010 Tour Dates:

11/26 Ft. Pierce, FL Sunrise Theatre
11/27 Atlanta, GA Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
11/28 Sarasota, FL Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
11/29 Ft. Lauderdale, FL Au-Rene Theater
11/30 Naples, FL Philharmonic Center for the Arts
12/1 Clearwater, FL Ruth Eckerd Hall
12/3 Cleveland, OH Playhouse Square/Palace Theatre
12/4 Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
12/5 Columbus, OH Palace Theatre
12/6 Bethesda, MD Strathmore Music Center
12/7 Newport News, VA Ferguson Center for the Arts
12/9 El Paso, TX Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center
12/10 San Diego, CA Balboa Theatre
12/11 San Francisco, CA Nob Hill Masonic Center
12/12 Palm Desert, CA McCallum Theatre for the Performing Arts
12/14 Santa Rosa, CA Wells Fargo Center for the Arts
12/15 Sacramento, CA Radisson Hotel
12/16 Mesa, AZ Mesa Arts Center/Ikeda Theater
12/17 Cerritos, CA Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts
12/18 Cerritos, CA Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts
12/19 Los Angeles, CA Nokia Theatre L.A. Live
12/20 Modesto, CA Gallo Center for the Arts

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