BWW Interview: Dave Koz Celebrate 20 Years of Christmas Tours with New CD
From listening to him over the phone, the immediate feel one gets from Dave Koz is of enthusiasm. That's for his music, but in every subject we recently discussed, that energy never changed in our conversation. Just back from a short tour of Asia, Koz is preparing to hit the road once again for his annual Christmas tour, featuring a reunion of the original lineup, and a 20th anniversary album.
"I started doing these Christmas tours," Koz explains, "never planning, believe me, to be doing them this long. The first one started in 1997, the year my dad passed away, and my colleague David Benoit had lost his mother the same year. We were just kind of commiserating, and trying to figure out, what can we do with this huge loss in both of our lives? He came up with the idea, 'Why don't we go out and play some shows at Christmastime? We can honor our parents in this way that we know how to do it, and brings some joy to some people?'"
Koz recalled the first tour was only a few shows, but they were well received. "We did it the next year," he goes on, "(and) here we are twenty years later. We didn't want the milestone to go by acknowledging it in some way."
Trumpeter Rick Braun and guitarist Peter White join the original four, Koz and Benoit; the material is classic holiday tunes, with guest vocalist plus an orchestra. "We recorded this album very old-fashioned," Koz says, "which was all of us in the studio at the same time, except for the orchestra. That's a very special way to record," he goes on, "for something as emotional as Christmas music, you want to capture that emotion, it's almost like capturing lightning in a bottle. When you get great musicians together in a studio all with the same mindset, and press record, and everybody's there and really present and creating together; you can capture that, (and) you end up feeling it in a profound way."
A serious listen to 20th Anniversary Christmas gives the feel of that intimacy between the performers and their familiarity with the pieces. The songs are classics, with some variations; a slower-tempo "Feliz Navidad," features Gabriel Orengo; Selina Albright does a soulful "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and Javier Colon (The Voice) takes his turn on "Silent Night."
"People at Christmastime, they want what they know," Koz reflects. "The most well-known Christmas songs, they're songs that we've been hearing for years and years; that's what people want to hear at the holidays. It's almost like musical comfort food. It's going back to that same sweater you always wear at Christmas time; it makes you feel good, it reminds you of Christmases' past and people that come in and out of our life, simpler times. The holidays bring up all those emotions, of family and friends you really care about, experiences you had in the past. These songs trigger those emotions, more than just notes on a page; they are guideposts for our lives. I have a tremendous amount of respect for holiday music, and these songs, you want to approach them in the studio with great respect."
The California native's musical palette is a wide one. "I'm a product of all the different music coming from the different rooms in my house," he calls. "My parents were listening to Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, which I loved. My brother (Jeff) was listening to progressive rock, groups like Jefferson Starship and Gentle Giant. He was really into jazz, Steely Dan, a lot of more forward stuff than I was aware of. My sister (Roberta) was listening to the horn bands, Chicago, Earth, Wind and Fire and that's what kind of tweaked me early on, was that horn section. The first album I ever bought was Tower of Power's Back to Oakland, and it was really that horn section, to me that was the impetus for all of this, but never having any inkling, this would become my life's work.
"When I went into seventh grade," Koz says, "I picked up the saxophone, it was the third instrument that I had. I sucked completely at anything I had done before, so I really didn't think I had any musical talent, but there was something about the saxophone that really connected with me. It became my sort of best friend and trusted ally, still to this day, it's right there for me all the time."
Two weeks after Koz graduated from UCLA, he got the call from singer Bobby Caldwell. "He was looking for a saxophone player," Koz recalls, "I got the gig, and it was just that right gig at the right time. He saw something me that I didn't even know was there and nurtured it, and from there I met Jeff Lorber. I auditioned for his band; he hired me, and it was him who said, 'Look, you know, you should be a recording artist as well.'
"I thought the guy was high on something," Koz exclaims, still sounding astounded at that. "I just couldn't believe what he was saying. He helped me get those early demos together, that got me signed to Capitol Records. If it weren't for those two individuals and a lot of other people that saw that essence in me that I didn't know was there, I certainly wouldn't be talking to you. It's been a wonderful magic carpet ride of life."
That training has led Koz to be as he admits, best known perhaps for collaboration. "If it's Steve Wonder, Rod Stewart, Celine Dion, George Benson, I guess when I'm around those people," he says, "a little bit of me is like a sponge, just want to see and experience how they do it, what makes them tick."
One other thing that the layperson will take for granted? A story Koz drops about Stevie Wonder: "The first take that he did was absolutely perfect," Koz says. "We all knew in the studio that that was it, that was the take, he didn't need to do it again. But because he's a perfectionist; because he's Stevie Wonder, he was doing a favor for someone else's album, he wasn't getting paid or anything, he had to just by the nature of who he is, had to strive to make sure he had given his best. It really taught me a great lesson about why are these people so famous, why are they so iconic? It's because they're 100% dedicated to their craft, and anytime they show up to do it, they are always striving for excellence. It's a great lesson to learn when you're kind of midway through your career, and you see somebody who's that established, someone as legendary and still is not floating or skating by, it's a great thing to learn. I tell young musicians, that's the number one thing, just enjoy it. If you love it great, that passion that joy is going to lead you where you need to be."
Koz will be touring for a few shows in October, before preparing for the Christmas tour, which opens November 24th in Atlanta. Early next year, Koz will revisit another of his collaborations, Summer Horns II, which brings him back with Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, and Richard Elliot. Despite a recording career that's gone past a quarter century, Koz hasn't let up. "I'm still very energized," he says, "and very focused on the being in the flow of it all and in the moment. I couldn't do it if I didn't love it, so I still love it, and as long as I love it, I want to do it."
(Photo Credits: Antonio Dixon)