Contemporary jazz saxophonist Dave Koz

The eight-time Grammy nominee describes his collaboration with three of his most trusted musical colleagues on his latest CD.

During a 20-year career, saxophonist and eight-time Grammy nominee Dave Koz has compiled an ambitious discography, in addition to hosting his own syndicated radio show, keeping a hand in various entrepreneurial ventures and supporting several philanthropic organizations, including the Starlight Children's Foundation. He began playing the sax in his brother's band, but hedged his bet by studying mass communications at UCLA. Degree in hand, he opted to pursue his music, initially as a sideman and, later, as a solo artist. On his latest album, "Summer Horns," Koz revisits the music of the brassy juggernaut bands that ruled the airwaves back in the day.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Eight-time Grammy nominee Dave Koz. His latest CD brings together three of his most trusted musical colleagues, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair, to reinvent classic songs from the ’60s and ’70s for a new CD titled “Summer Horns.”

The album features their take on hits from bands such Sly and the Family Stone, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Blood, Sweat, and Tears and Chicago. Let’s take a look at a cut from “Summer Horns,” The Beatles, “Got to Get You into My Life.”

[Clip of Dave Koz and band performing in studio]

Tavis: See, for a cat who grew up in the hood like I did, when you hear that, you think the Elements – you think Earth, Wind, and Fire. But it just goes to show how brilliant Lennon and McCartney were. It’s their song, but the other ones put their stank on it and when you hear it, in my neighborhood, you think Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Dave Koz: Well, that was – first of all, you know I love you.

Tavis: I love you back and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. (Laughter)

Koz: It’s great to see you.

Tavis: You too.

Koz: Thank you so much for having me on to talk about this project, because this project, honestly, it’s a labor of love. It’s what I’ve wanted to do. I’d had it in my head for so many years. It was just a matter of timing when we would do it, and now just seemed to be the right time to do it.

But all these songs, whether it’s “Got To Get You Into My Life,” or – there’s so many that are so attached to these bands, these horn bands, which represent the golden era of music where every song that you heard on the air had this kicking horn section, tight horn section, so much excitement.

Earth, Wind, and Fire, Tower of Power, Chicago, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown. This was, for a young horn player growing up, it was what I wanted to hear and why I became a musician, really.

Tavis: You are a professor when it comes to these things. You are a musicologist. You know this stuff frontwards and backwards. What was it about that era, what was it about the ’70s and the ’80s that made it such a fertile time for horn sections?

Koz: I think there was a lot more playing that was going on, a lot more musicianship and fellowship with musicianship. Nowadays, not to say that that doesn’t happen, but music is made a lot almost in a laboratory where you get one guy working in one studio, they send the file to another guy in some other part of the world, they send it back and then they send it this way and that way. Musicianship is kind of – there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, some great music is made that way.

But bands like Chicago, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Tower of Power, these bands that we’re talking about, they played together nonstop. When they weren’t in the studio, they were out doing 250 shows a year. That kind of just being in that proximity with each other, knowing each other, knowing exactly the horn section, the phrasing.

Just the way I play the saxophone versus the way Gerald Albright, who’s on this album, plays the saxophone, we approach the instrument so differently. Yet if we’re going to be playing together, we have to come up with a blend.

Tavis: So you all play differently, but how do you know that it’s going to blend into something that we want to hear when you get you and Mindi Abair and Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot all on sax? How do you know it’s gonna work as opposed to – (laughter)

Koz: You bring up a very good point. We didn’t know.

Tavis: Yeah.

Koz: Tavis, the first day in the studio – it was produced by a guy named Paul Brown, who’s a legendary jazz producer.

Tavis: I love Paul.

Koz: We got in the studio the first day and we all looked at each other and we said, “Well, let’s just pray this works.” Because we had agreed to doing a “Summer Horns” tour, which we’re on right now. We agreed to doing the album. But here are four soloists that are all on saxophone, that are not used to playing with other saxophone players.

Maybe when we were in high school, we all played the big band, but it had been years since we had to sort of blend with another saxophone player.

The first track that we worked on was “So Very Hard to Go,” which is a Tower of Power classic. We all put our horns up, they hit record, and -

Tavis: Go ahead and do it, do it.

[Dave Koz plays saxophone]

Koz: These great horn section parts, and they were all arranged on this album by the guys who did the original. So Greg Adams, who was the principal horn arranger for Tower of Power, and Tom Scott, who did the arrangements for everybody from Michael Jackson to Paul McCartney to – just go on and on, all the Steely Dan stuff.

So we had the greatest arrangers doing the arrangements, so when we put our horns to our mouths and made the first sound, we all looked at each other and we said, “I think this is gonna work.” (Laughter)

Tavis: So because there’s so many – I mean, you know I’m a music lover, of course – because there are so many great horn sections and so many great hits, you could just do Earth, Wind, and Fire’s corpus and have a great album of horn solos and horn sections. So how did you figure out what made the cut? You got what, 12 tracks on here?

Koz: There’s 12 tracks on there, and that was probably the most difficult aspect of making this. We had conference calls in December, where the four of us and Paul and John Burke, who’s the executive producer, from the record company.

We’d all be on the call and we’d all be lobbying for our favorite songs. There were so many, there was probably a list of a hundred songs. We would just keep chipping away at them.

Some of them were more party songs, a lot of the Kool and the Gang stuff, a lot the Ohio Players, a lot more groove, party stuff, great horn lines, but as far as – we’re all instrumentalists, we want to play melodies as well.

So we had to pick songs that we knew we had great melodies to deal with, so a little bit more meat on the bone. So that’s why you have a couple of songs like “Rise,” that was made famous by Herb Alpert in the late ’70s.

Tavis: That’s a great cut.

Koz: Great song to be able to play. Then we were on the phone one time on our conference calls the day after Dave Brubeck had passed away, and we were talking about that song that he’s so known for, “Take Five,” which was actually written by Paul Desmond, the great alto saxophone player.

Probably one of the greatest melodies ever written, let alone for the saxophone. We came up with the idea, well, why couldn’t we do that song on this record, and do it with just us, four saxophone players, and stand-up bass.

We had one of the great arrangers who won the Grammy last year and the year before that. Gordon Goodwin wrote this most spectacular version of “Take Five” for us to play, and we did it.

We’ve been doing it in our live show. It’s been so much – it’s kind of like the centerpiece of this album.

Tavis: Yeah. I’ll come back to the sax in a second, but there’s some great vocals on here. Michael McDonald, Jeffrey Osborne.

Koz: Yeah. Jonathan Butler’s singing on that.

Tavis: Jonathan Butler. (Laughs) It’s not just the horns.

Koz: I have a good story to tell you about Michael McDonald.

Tavis: Sure. Please, I love Michael McDonald stories.

Koz: Okay. So Michael McDonald – “So Very Hard to Go,” Tower of Power song, I always heard him singing that. He was my first choice. So I called him up. He’s a good friend. In fact, he’s coming on our cruise which you’re coming on, right? On television?

Tavis: I’m going on cruise; I’m going on the cruise.

Koz: Okay, good.

Tavis: Okay. (Laughter)

Koz: We’ll talk about that later. So anyway, I call him and I say, “Mike, I want to talk to you about this album that we’re making, this “Summer Horns” project.” He told me the story that he was – I told him about the song, right?

He said, “Look, this is not a joke. I was shopping at Home Depot about two weeks ago,” and the image of Michael McDonald shopping at Home Depot (laughter) kind of cracked me up for a minute. So I got over that and I said, “Okay, well, tell me the story.”

So this song, the original from Tower of Power, came on the loudspeaker and he took a moment out, whatever aisle he was in, paint aisle or whatever, and he said, “It’s a great song. Somebody should really cover that song, ’cause it’s never been covered by anybody, pretty much, other than Tower of Power.”

Tavis: And you happened to call him and ask him to do that song.

Koz: Two weeks later. He said, “I’m taking this as a sign from God that I need to do this project.” (Laughter) He turned in one of the great Michael McDonald vocals.

Tavis: You mentioned a cruise. This is a great cruise. I mean, you do this every year. Tell me about the cruise.

Koz: Well, this is gonna be our eighth annual Dave Koz and Friends at Sea, and it starts in Rome, September 22nd through the 29th. It starts in Rome, Italy and we’re cruising the Mediterranean Sicily, the island of Sicily, and then we go to Athens and Mykonos.

It’s something, it’s something, it’s like you’re marinating in music. If you love music, music is going on in every corner of the ship. We’ve got Michael McDonald; we’ve got Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright. Mindi will be there.

Peter White will be on the ship, Brian Culbertson. We have about 40 headline artists – Sheila E., Larry Graham and Grand Central Station will be on the ship. It just goes on and on and on. Plus you’re seeing these incredible ports of call and there are no strangers on the ship.

Tavis: How many dates you guys going to get in this summer? You’re going to be moving pretty fast.

Koz: Yup, we have about 30 shows to do and we’ve done about two weeks so far of it, and we’ve been having the greatest time. The audience seems to be so excited to see us, because it’s not something that we know is going to happen any other time than right now, the four of us together.

It’s been so much fun, and getting a chance to be on stage with Richard and Mindi and Gerald, these are people that I’ve known for so many years, but we’ve never actually played together and we’re having the time of our lives.

Tavis: Speaking of time, time goes too fast. We’re out of time. It just goes that quick. But you can’t bring your horn and not play me out with something. So let me say goodbye and what are you going to play us out with, first of all?

Koz: Well, I’m gonna quiz you. Tell me whether you can recognize this one.

Tavis: Oh, don’t put me on the spot.

[Dave Koz playing sax]

Koz: How about this one?

Tavis: (Laughs) All right, how about this one?

[Dave Koz playing sax]

Tavis: Yeah, I got it. (Laughs) You got one more? Go ahead.

Koz: Ah, let’s see.

[Dave Koz playing sax]

Tavis: Got it. (Laughs) You didn’t stump me today.

Koz: I never stump you. You’re an encyclopedia.

Tavis: Those are great licks, though.

Koz: They’re good licks.

Tavis: They’re good licks. You want to hear all these licks and more, the new project from Dave Koz and Friends is called “Summer Horns.” It features my good friend Dave Koz with Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair, Richard Elliot. Catch him on tour sometime this summer, as I will. If you are on that cruise September 22, you may very well see me.

Koz: Woo.

Tavis: I may come sing with you, man. I’m invited.

Koz: You just said that on television.

Tavis: Did I just invite myself on stage? (Laughter)

Koz: Yes, you did. We’ll give you your own show, man.

Tavis: No, no, no, no. You don’t want people jumping off the ship in the water. (Laughter) Dave, I love you, man.

Koz: Love you too.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • Emmanuel

    Love Jazz and this was one great and fun interview.

Last modified: December 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm