With Pandemic Times headed toward the year and a half mark, we are starting to see the tidal wave of new music—in all genres—from artists who have been cooped up in their homes and studios.
Many acts have gotten out one record, but overachieving jazz saxophonist Dave Koz has recently put out two, which are quite divergent listening experiences: the more traditional smooth jazz-sounding A New Day, and a collaboration with jam/funk guitarist Cory Wong, The Golden Hour.
Out of the gate first, A New Day was conceived, written, and recorded entirely during the pandemic, and came out 30 years to the week after Koz’s debut release did.
“It’s probably going to be the only completely virtual album I’ll ever do. I’m telling you, Bob, nobody saw anybody in person making this record,” Koz says. “When the pandemic started, I began just listening to my feel good music, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Maybe I should be doing this for others. And that would be a better use fo my time than laying on the couch and watching Netflix.”
Because of the unique circumstances, Koz says he was able to lure some big name guest stars and make the process “miraculously easy and quick.”
“We could get whoever we wanted because everyone was home! It was like going into a candy store. ‘I’ll take David Sanborn on this one and Bob James on this one and Brian McKnight on this one,'” he says. “They were like ‘Send over the track today!’ And when we got them back, it was with this pent up musical energy because everyone was sidelined.”
Both records were originally going to be a combined double album, but the Wong collaboration really needed to be put down live in the studio with all the players together. Koz says the sessions kept getting delayed, but finally after Labor Day everyone gathered in Minneapolis—with performers, studio workers and a camera crew all masked up. The result was definitely something outside of Koz’s comfort zone, which he relished.
“I really love collaborating. But collaborating with someone in my own genre whether it be a superstar or a new artist doesn’t really move the needle,” he offers. “Cory has a really younger and completely different audience. My fan base has embraced his, and we’ll see if his will embrace this old saxophone player!”
Houston will get the chance to see Koz play live when he brings his established Dave Koz & Friends Summer Horns show to the Arena Theatre on August 7. “I love the Arena Theatre, it’s fun. But if it doesn’t spin, that’s OK with me because I’ll be less disoriented! And I can’t tell you how many people I know who have moved from southern California to Houston recently,” he says.
“I haven’t played in front of live audiences in almost two years, and doing the livestreams for cameras were awkward at best. I want to play and look at people’s faces and see their reaction in real time,” Koz continues. “This tour is a big gift for us to bring this high energy and fun music to people at a time when they need it. We all need a little happy right now.”
As for the “Friends” coming with Koz, he’s sort of putting together a sort of Saxophone Avengers, each team member bringing a different genre and strength.
He says that the Summer Horns concept was born out of his love for the horn-based bands of the ‘70s like Chicago, Tower of Power, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire and Blood, Sweat and Tears. For the Houston show, they’ll also be joined by vocalist Kenny Lattimore. Koz broke down the superpowers of each horn blower.
“Kirk Whalum, to me, is the best tenor saxophonist alive. Mindi Abair is the Queen and created a completely new sound for the saxophone, and she’s a dear friend,” he says. “And then we have a young buck in Vincent Ingala, who turned the world of contemporary jazz on its ear when he debuted at all of 16 years old. He’s now 29. I have socks older than he is! But we need new artists to take this music into new territory. To me, he’s at the forefront of pushing that envelope.”
Personally, Koz says always on the lookout for new sounds, and he enthuses about one band that a younger friend turned him onto: the trio Khruangbin, before he makes a connection.
“Wait, they’re from Houston, right?” he says [note: they are]. “I had no concept of these people. So I went onto Spotify and they had tens or hundreds of millions of plays. And that’s what the modern music business is. You think people don’t know about these bands, but they’re huge. The concept is so different. There is no gatekeeper. If you have a great idea and a way to record it, you can have international distribution with one keystroke. And that makes things exciting.”
All through the pandemic, Koz continued to record his weekly Dave Koz Lounge show for SiriusXM radio’s Watercolors channel. But instead of going into their Los Angeles or New York studios to put it down, he did it with a hi-tech microphone that he could simply plug into his iPhone.
“I wanted those two hours to be reflective of what was going on in the world and what people might want to hear. So I really enjoyed that, to hopefully just inspire people through music that we were going to get through this,” he says.
Post-pandemic, Koz is also anxious to resume the jazz cruises he headlines and organizes, with two May 2022 voyages going to Amsterdam and the British Isles. The last one saw him shepherd 4,000 mostly Americans to Australia, with performances from dozens of bands and musicians going almost 24/7.
“It’s like you’re marinating in the music on those ships in every nook and cranny from the early morning to the wee hours. The first day there is a pandemonium when people are freaking out and there are 60 artists just walking in the hallways and everyone wants to take a picture,” he says. “But then people go more into vacation [mode] and relax. There is no backstage! There’s beautiful respect that the guests have for the artists. That’s a heavy duty honor. And we get to see the world together bound by the shared love of music.”
Finally, the music of Dave Koz is usually filed under the category of “Smooth Jazz,” a term that has been the subject of critical brickbats and nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor. Think Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy playing jazz flute in Anchorman or Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson’s “Duke Silver” alter ego on Parks and Recreation. And all those Kenny G jokes.
Koz says the “S” word was actually first uttered by a woman in Chicago taking part in a radio programming research group, and that it’s actually more of a radio format whose heyday has past rather than an actual genre.
The music remains popular though, and Koz has come around on the moniker.
“I’ve gone through different feelings about it,” he says. “I sort of rejected it for awhile. But now, because of the younger generation that has adopted and promoted the word ‘smooth,’ it’s kind of come into favor again. And it’s in vogue with a generation who doesn’t look at it in a demeaning way, so I’ve come around. I’m embracing the smooth big time!”
Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns starts at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 7, at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. For information, call 713-772-5900 or visit arenatheatre.net. $49.50-$99.50.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.