A Conversation with Dave Koz – HuffPost 10.24.14

Mike Ragogna: So, another Dave Koz And Friends has arrived. I’m pretty sure now you’re friends with everyone on the planet at this point.

Dave Koz: [laughs] That’s very kind of you to say. I seriously doubt that however. Of course, you’re talking about the new holiday album, and yeah, sometimes I look at the list of people who actually came forward and it shocks me. I’m like, “How did that happen?” It also happened in a very, very short time period.

MR: How long did it take to record The 25th of December, you know, with your cast of thousands?

DK: [laughs] We recorded that album in like five weeks during the summer, it was like a blur. I can’t believe we did that and all those people came forward during that time. But sometimes projects go the other way, by the way, where things are just not flowing and everything takes time and everything’s a struggle to get anything happening. This was just not that way. From the minute it started, boom. Everything just flowed very easily. I credit a lot of that to Rickey Minor who’s the producer of that, who’s just so effortless in his ability to work with people. He’s like this little hub of activity. He’s like the hive and there are always bees around him, willing to do anything to make it happen. It was such a pleasure to work with him. The proof is in the pudding, I’m so proud of that album.

MR: And it sounds like everybody had a great time. You’ve done this before, but this time out, it really feels like the party was at Dave’s house.

DK: Well that’s it! You couldn’t say anything better to me about this album because that was our intention. Imagine for a moment that you’re having a holiday party and you’ve invited everybody in, had this wonderful dinner and some nice wine and everybody’s got this feeling and it’s nice and cozy and warm and then after dinner and dessert we take our glasses of wine into the music room or the living room, there’s a nice piano there, I start it all off with a song and it just so happens that our dinner guests are also fantastically talented people and one at a time they all come up and do a song and I help them out with their song and at the end right before we say goodnight we do one song together. That’s the way this album is.

All these people came and did their songs and then the last song–I got the idea from Jeff Lorber of all people. He had done this arrangement, this very slowed down version of “All You Need Is Love,” The Beatles classic, where you really hear and feel the intent of it. It just hit me like, “Wow, wouldn’t this be great as the last song on a Christmas album? It’s never been heard in that way before.” That’s what we did. I invited all of the guests who sang songs earlier to be a part of it, “We Are The World” style and next thing you know we had just about everybody on that last song and the pièce de résistance, it all leads up to Stevie Wonder. Having him, who is to me, truly, the embodiment of love on this planet at this time, having him be the payoff for all of those singers leading up to Stevie Wonder taking the vocals and playing harmonica, I don’t even know how it happened, I just say thank you.

MR: We were talking about being around the piano at the Christmas party. It seems you really care about them on a personal and creative level as well?

DK: I do! I don’t think that’s something you can manufacture. People are smart enough to know when it’s a commercial venture as opposed to something that’s authentic. Every one of those people who are on this particular album and who come on the cruises and who I tour with regularly are my friends! And these are people that I love to collaborate with. I think you’ll find that most musicians and artists come from this place of open hearts and open ears and open arms just by nature of the fact that they’re musicians, and music is the dominant force that’s informing their lives. This is something I’ve said a lot of times: I think that our world leaders should be required to take up an instrument if they don’t play one, because you can’t play an instrument without being a good listener. You have to be able to listen. I think that musicians tend to be great communicators, but they also have to be great listeners, and that makes you an even better communicator. When you have that open channel where there’s a free exchange of ideas, whether they’re musical or otherwise, I’ve had some of the most amazing conversations with musician friends and artist friends that have taken wonderful turns. And that’s what I love to do now especially in my life. I’ve made a lot of records, so if I’m going to do something again, if I’m going to go into the studio again I want to be able to say something different. If left to my own devices, if I was working on my own I’d probably make the same record over and over and over. Since I’m collaborating with other artists it allows me to have my ideas stretched and prodded and I get a chance to grow as an artist and perhaps something that I’m saying has a different texture or a different point of view because I’ve been influenced by somebody who I respect. That’s what happens on this record.

MR: Your last album, Summer Horns, merged a lot of talent. These “…and Friends” projects kind of prove that you understand where artists are coming from as you allow for them to shine as well.

DK: I think it’s in my DNA, definitely. Born collaborator. I love working with other artists. Initially, when I had that idea for Summer Horns it was like, “Okay, let’s do a Summer Horns project, these are the Summer Horns and maybe next year, we’ll do something else.” But I knew immediately when we started making that record that these were the Summer Horns. You can’t just start replacing people, that’s who Summer Horns is. It was so immediate that Mindi and Gerald and Richard and I kept on becoming more and more solidified. In fact, we just had our last gig on the books after two summers. That was it. I don’t know if we’ll ever do it again. I hope that we will, but we don’t have any concrete plans right now. That’s kind of the end of an era. Bittersweet. I think that the record was really strong and I think that the shows we did were amongst the most fun I’ve ever had on stage period, but that little X factor, that missing link you don’t always see is that camaraderie and friendship, the true appreciation, respect and love that we have for each other. That’s something I’m going to miss more than anything else is just spending time with those three. We really hit it off. We all had a great time together and learned a lot from each other.

MR: With the cast of characters you recorded with on The 25th Of December, did you pick anything up from them?

DK: Absolutely. One of the guys I’ve learned so much from, beyond music even, more about how to be in life and how to live this purest form of being alive and in the moment, that lesson I learned very squarely from Johnny Mathis, who I’ve known for a number of years. Johnny is an icon and certainly one of the most famous singers of all time. I called him on the first day of recording, because we had this idea to do a jazzier version of a song that he made so popular. His version of “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” along with Andy Williams’ was probably one of the most memorable Christmas song performances of all time. I was a little leery about him saying yes to this because how do you improve upon perfection? You can’t. But I called him up and the same day he called me right back and I was in the studio so I didn’t get the message but I saved the message. If you look at my phone right now you’d see th emessage is still right there. It says, “Of course I’d love to sing on your album, I’ll sing anything you like. If you want to do that song, great. I love you, I love making music with you.” So I called him back and I said, “Why don’t you come over the next day?” I think it was a tuesday so I said, “Come over tomorrow, Wednesday, around two o’clock to the studio and we’ll pick a key and we’ll decide on how we want to do it.”

This is the brilliance of Rickey Minor, instead of just coming and having a little confab, a little meeting about the song, he arranged to have a recording session with a bassist and drummer and a pianist and me there. So when John came we picked a key and we just did it. We didn’t wait around to do it, we just did it. And he was so gung-ho, even a guy who didn’t expect to be recording on that day, he was ready to go for it. I think that immediacy and that openness and that being in the moment is something that he’s the epitome of. I love seeing that because it just rubs off. I like to spend time with him and hear all his stories. He’s such a little kid, he’s still so excited about making music. He’s seventy eight years old and he’s in great shape, he’s out there golfing if he’s in town every single day. Totally active. It’s more than just the music that I learn from people I’ve had the great fortune to collaborate with. Gloria Estefan who I love and I’ve worked with quite a bit, too, the kind attention she gave to singing on somebody else’s album–she’s a superstar! What does she evene need to be doing, singing on my album, and secondly the fact that she put forth so much energy into it to make it great, that really affected me. She is such a perfectionist in the best usage of the term. And then seeing Stevie Wonder coming in to play harmonica first of all on “All You Need Is Love,” there’s a moment I’ll never forget, because he was supposed to come a little later, but with Stevie you never know when he’s going to show up, if he’s going to show up. I had alreayd left the studio for the day and then Rickey said, “He’s coming!” That means that he could be coming right now or he could be coming in five hours.

So I came back to the studio and by the time I got there he was already playing on my song. Walking into the studio and hearing that sound was one of the most surreal moments of my life. He’d only said, “Yeah, I’ll come and bring my harmonica and I’ll play on it.” That was all we asked for. Rickey, the brilliance of him, he’s like, “You know you want to get a little some of this because you’re going to hear this on the radio and you’re not oging to hear your voice and you’re going to go, ‘Why didn’t I sing on this? Everybody else is singing on it.'” Then Stevie ended up singing a bunch of takes, and his first vocal take was perfect. He gets to the end of the track and he says, “Nah, give me another.” He gets to the end of the track again and he goes, “Eh, no, that’s not going to do. Let me have another.” He must have done it ten times and he kept getting frustrated with himself. He was pushing himself and I just stood there with my jaw on the floor like, “I can’t believe that I’m watching this.”

First of all, everything that he did was amazing. The first thing that he did was great. By the way, that’s the take we used. But he’s Stevie Wonder, right? It’s not like it’s some new artist here trying to prove himself. What does he need to do to prove himself? He’s Stevie Wonder. Even Stevie Wonder was on somebody else’s record–this time it was me who was the very blessed recipient of his talent–pushing himself and wanting to outdo his own bests and constantly strive for perfection. That was a beautiful thing for me to see. I’m no spring chicken, I’ve been doing this for twenty five years. If Stevie Wonder can be like that in the studio, I can push myself more. Even if the first time I do it is the one that is used, great, but still, having that thing inside of you that wants to always strive for the best possible thing you can do, to strive for excellence. That experience of seeing him do that on my album will stay with me forever.

MR: Now, what about you? You’re talking about all of these wonderfully talented people coming to play on your album, but I imagine you must be influencing other people when you’re a guest on their records.

DK: I think part of it is recognizing that there’s something special going on here, I’ve been very blessed to have had a really nice career, but by the same token a lot of us just downplay it. I’m starting to do less of that. Kirk Whalum, who’s a good friend of mine and one of my favorite musicians of all time said it best to me, and I always give him credit. What he said to me about talent has really stayed with me: However you want to say it, whether it’s a gift from the heavens or whatever, you’re born with some sort of talent and you nurture it. It’s not yours, you don’t get to take it when you leave. It’s almost like somebody has placed this beautiful gem in your hand when you’re born and all of a sudden it gets revealed to you that you have this gem and you can do anything with it.

But the goal is to protect it and don’t squander it, but at the same time, you want to let people see it and show its brilliance knowing full well it’s not you, it’s just coming through you, this beautiful gem, and knowing full well you’re not going to be able to keep it forever, so the idea is to share it and to celebrate it and let people look at it and be influenced by it or healed by it or whatever the power it has over people is. You have to shepherd it and protect it so that you know when it’s time to give it up it’s going to go to the next person in better shape than when you got it. That’s the nicest way of talking about talent that I’ve heard.

MR: When you’re creating and improvising and playing truly from the heart and deep down, what is that experience like? It’s probably something difficult to describe but I’d like to see if you could pinpoint it.

DK: You know, I think there is something that comes from being completely in the moment and letting the music just sweep you away. It doesn’t happen every day or every time I pick up the horn, but when it does happen it makes you really appreciate, “Okay, this is really what I’m doing, what my strength is in this lifetime. I’m here to play this thing and to use this as my vehicle to transform. Hopefully, people are hearing this and they’re being moved by it. It’s not always using the saxophone. We just came off of our cruise, we had a cruise to Alaska taking twenty one hundred people who come from very different lives, all different backgrounds, and taking them on a trip for a week and sharing all of this music together and not just music but the camaraderie and friendship and all of the elegance and grandeur and majesty of Alaska and all of these incredibly beautiful vistas, it’s feeding the soul. It’s what music does, it’s what nature does, it’s what great pieces of art do, it’s feeding our souls with love and light and goodness, and I think that’s what everybody’s after. That sense that you know in your heart when you see it, “Oh, I keep forgetting because I’m so disconnected most of the time that this is what it means to be alive.” Music is one of those things that’s a reminder if people’s hearts are open, it’s a great reminder of the true essence of what being alive is. Light and love and positivity and growth and transformation and inspiration and all of those things that we in our busy lives get very disconnected from.

MR: Dave, now is a perfect time to inject that traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?

DK: Be you. It’s kind of part of coming up through the ranks where you try to emulate people. I did it, too. I remember one piece of advice David Sanborn gave to me a long time ago. I idolized him so much, everything about him, and I remember in one of my first encounters with him I told him that and he said, “Look, there already is a me, so I’ve got that one covered. You should just be you and be the best you that you can be.” That was really good advice, very important advice at a key time for me. That’s what I would say. This is a very exciting time for music because there are not the fences and the gates and the things that keep people out. The world is available at the flick of a switch and you can develop an audience without having to go through gatekeepers like record companies. If you have a great idea or if you have a great talent, if you choose to show it in a way that can break through you can have a massive career on your own terms. There’s never been a better time to truly be unique and let the world see what it is that is you as opposed to trying to fit within the parameters of how people have been successful in the past.

MR: Beautiful. Considering all of the Christmas material you’ve recorded, was it the plan all along to become Captain Christmas?

DK: [laugh] Captain Christmas, I’ve not heard about it that way. I kind of like that. I don’t know how that happened, cause I’m a Jew. I’m a Jewish kid and this is number five of my Christmas albums, number seventeen, if you can believe that, of Christmas tours. No idea how that happened. But here’s my thought… First of all, this is not a commercial thing at all for me. I love Christmas music. We’re talking about some of the greatest songs ever written. Every year people try to come up with a new essential Christmas song, but it is so difficult. The deck is so stacked against you because Christmas music is like comfort food. When you think about comfort food you want the stuff that you know, that you’ve heard all of your life. That’s why these songs have become so important to people. They’re like a time travel tunnel back to more innocent times, our childhoods, or they’re wonderful reminders of our past and our times with loved ones who may not be here anymore. They’re like guideposts to our lives. Those are the things that you just want to hear because they make you feel good. They make you feel warm and fuzzy. I consider it a great honor to play these songs every year. Of course, we try to inject some newness in there, like we did on The 25th Of December.

Richard Marx and this guy named Trey Bruce and I wrote a song called “Another Silent Night,” which I think is a fabulous song, Richard is so talented. That’s a brand new song. And BeBe Winans wrote the title track and I remember hearing this very crude demo that BeBe made with him singing and playing piano. He’s not a very good piano player, by the way, but I remember hearing the song and hearing him singing and saying, “I know this song! I know this song. It’s one of those old classics.” It turns out, no, I didn’t know this song, it’s a brand new piece of music but it had all of that familiarity built in. It was just so identifiable and so relatable but it was a brand new piece of music. That’s when I knew that that would have to be on the album, not ever thinking it would become the title track, but it’s that good. We have two new pieces of music and then ten classics.

My goal with this album, by the way… I made a deal with Rickey–you talk about learning new things with each album, this was the album I made my solemn promise to Rickey that I would play not one more note than necessary. Every single note that I play is there for a reason. He didn’t let me get away with noodling or filling spaces unless it really was meant to be there and needed to be there. It was a very adult record for me. Not just filling holes but playing only when it really, really needed it. The songs are so great, they really just live on their own. You have to really try hard to screw them up, as long as you don’t change them in a random way where you just say, “Oh, I’m changing this because I want to do something that hasn’t bee done before.” If you remain true to the pieces of music they won’t let you down. They’re amazing pieces of music.

MR: What happens when you run out of Christmas songs? Are you going to go through withdrawal?

DK: [laughs] I don’t think I could EVER run out of Christmas songs. Have you ever looked at how many Christmas songs there are? I could make fifty albums and not repeat myself. The problem is I have my favorites. But there’s a bunch of new music on this album. In fact, I think there’s only one song, “Let It Snow,” that I did with Kenny G–by the way that was an incredible mount of fun to do a duet with him on that, we’d never done that before and we’d known each other forever. He is truly Mr. Christmas. He has the most popular Christmas record of all time. But every piece of music on this album was new for me.

MR: I think we have to throw another holiday at you and see what comes out.

DK: Hoo boy! The nice thing about Christmas is there’s such a wealth of material to constantly go back to. There’s just not that many Halloween songs, or July 4th songs. There’s a huge variety of patriotic songs that are great, but Christmas gives you so many options. Even a song like, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm,” which is not necessarily a Christmas song although it’s very much associated with the holidays because of Ella’s version of that song. India.Arie loves Ella Fitzgerald and she’d never recorded any of the songs that Ella recorded and she heard that one and said, “This is the one, I want to do this.” I love what she did to it. She totally was respectful of the style of music that Ella sang and added her own flair to it, but she was very much India.Arie on it. It was a perfect combo. That song is one of my favorites on that CD.

MR: Dave! What’s next?

DK: I’m a partner in a restaurant/music venue. The restaurant has been in existence for over twenty five years in Orange County. I’ve not been a partner tha tlong but the people who own it are great friends of mine and we’re opening up a second location in Beverly Hills and that’s called Spaghettini And The Dave Koz Lounge. It’s a fine dining restaurant and five nights a week after dinner it will turn into a live music venue with headline artists from all different walks of life. Mostly adult music, jazz would be our DNA.

MR: That venture must be energizing for you.

DK: I’m very excited about this! This is kind of an on-land version of what we do on the cruises one week a year, where we can invite people into our space and treat them really well and feed them really well, great food, great wine, and be transformed by some unbelievable music on stage. This is kind of a new thing for me certainly, I’ve never been in this business before. It’s a chance to flex some new muscles and grow. I’m really excited about that. So that’s on the immediate horizon. For 2015 I’m just kind of putting things together. It’s my twenty fifth anniversary, so I’m excited about that. My first record was in 1990 so that’s twenty five years and not that I don’t do this normally but I’m going to spend that year doing things that really tickle my fancy. Maybe doing things that are a little different, a little left of center, a little bit rosy thinking, but the goal is just to really take a year to completely enjoy. I’m talking professionally, too. It might mean different kinds of projects, doing different kinds of tours, but we’ll see. Nothing is fully planted yet, but some of the seeds are being thrown around a bit. I’m excited about that.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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