Inspired by classic pop, rock and R&B bands of the 1960s and ’70s that featured horns, like Chicago, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind and Fire, smooth-jazz saxophone superstar Dave Koz called on three well-known sax-playing friends-Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot (a Tower alum)-to form an all-star section. Their debut project is Summer Horns, a collection of cover tunes from that era that evokes the fun, lighthearted spirit of summertime.
The four demonstrate an obvious camaraderie here; they work seamlessly as a unit, then trade off, their rapport enhanced by arrangements from some top-notch veterans, including Tom Scott and Greg Adams. The foursome takes Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” on a lively, high-spirited ride, and harmonizes through Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the horns accompanied only by Roberto Vally’s upright bass.
There are guests galore on the album. Singer Michael McDonald turns in a gritty, soulful performance on Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard to Go,” the horns complementing him without overpowering him. Smooth-jazz star Brian Culbertson contributes trombone to a soul-jazzy take on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and Culbertson and smooth-jazz trumpeter/flugelhornist Rick Braun expand the horn section for a funky, rollicking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” that also features vocals by guitarist-vocalist Jonathan Butler. The horns are kept relatively subtle on “God Bless the Child” featuring singer Jeffrey Osborne, the section departing briefly from the gospel arrangement for a jazzy break. Summer Horns includes one original composition, the sunny title tune written by Koz, Braun, Culbertson and album producer Paul Brown and presented as a bonus track.
It must have been a heck of a lot of fun to be at the concert documented on Live at the Blue Note Tokyo, Koz’s first live album. Recorded in September 2011 during the tour promoting the saxophonist’s 2010 release Hello Tomorrow, Live at the Blue Note Tokyo offers a mix of new songs and older favorites. The mostly upbeat set is infused with Koz’s trademark good humor, slick showmanship and even a smattering of Japanese.
The album opens on a soulful (and long-held) note with the ballad “What You Leave Behind,” before quickly shifting moods to the snappy “Together Again.” Koz is backed by a tight band-keyboardists Brian Simpson and Tio Banks, guitarist Randy Jacobs, bassist Andre Berry and drummer Jay Williams-and all get time in the spotlight. “All I See Is You” features some very funky grooving from Berry with Koz urging him on, while Jacobs gives “Put the Top Down” a rock edge, and both keyboardists and Williams deliver showy solos on the closer, “You Make Me Smile.”
Koz has spent much of his nearly 25-year solo career performing live; he’s learned what pleases a crowd and he knows how to deliver. There’s plenty of style over spontaneity on this album, but Koz and his band genuinely seem to be having a great time onstage, and the audience is clearly enjoying the show. You will too.