A Conversation with Dave Koz – HuffPost 5.29.13

Mike Ragogna: Dave, it looks like you’ve got some friends with you on this new project!

Dave Koz: Indeed! Old friends, dear friends, amazingly talented friends, but strangely enough, as long as we’ve known each other, we’ve never actually worked together on a project before. I’m talking about Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair, three phenomenal saxophone players at the top of their game. This album, the Summer Hornsproject was an album that was kind of floating around in my head for a long time. It was kind of in my musical DNA because the first record that I ever bought was Tower Of Power and that horn section sound kind of seeped into my musical psyche from the earliest days. It was my passion, my love, and it’s actually what brought me to the saxophone to begin with. So I knew that at some point, there was going to be this album that would pay tribute to the horn section as part of modern music, and if you look at that golden era where a horn section, specifically saxophones, were part of every group. It seemed like they were everywhere: Earth, Wind, And Fire; Tower Of Power; Chicago; James Brown, of course; Sly & The Family Stone; Blood, Sweat & Tears; it just went on and on. That sound added this certain power and tightness and excitement to the band’s grooves and also on stage, too. It’s hard to pass on how exciting that is. Anyway, that’s what was in the back of my mind and I knew that it wouldn’t be just one of my albums; I wanted to do it in collaboration, and this just came together very quickly with three people that I love and adore and whose passion for this sound and the sound of a horn section were equal to my passion.

MR: So I had it all wrong. Here I thought you were inspired by Al Stewart’s Year Of The Cat and that’s what got you into sax.

DK: [laughs] I did like that song, too.

MR: You know, after all of these albums, I never put together that, yeah, it would be fun to hear Koz in a horn section, doing an album like that. But though it makes sense, it also was a surprise.

DK: Well, for me too, because I didn’t really know. None of us knew until the first day of recording whether this would really work. You have a good idea and maybe the right people show up for the idea, but until you actually record it and get in front of microphones, you just don’t know what that sound is, especially when you’re talking about four people who are used to doing their own thing and have careers based on being soloists, not being part of a section. All of a sudden we’re being put into a section and is this thing going to work? I do remember that first day in the studio, we were all a little bit nervous. Of course, we all know each other well, but here you are side-by-side in the studio with your peers and shoulder-to-shoulder, everybody listening to everyone else, and it kind of forces you to dig deep and make sure you don’t screw up. I remember the very first sound that we made on the unit was actually the horn part from “So Very Hard To Go,” and the minute I heard that, I was like, “Whoa! That’s our sound!” I didn’t even know what our sound was, but there it was staring back at me, coming out of the speakers as a sound where you could hear each of our individual sounds but it was as a unit; it sounded like a section. There’s that very fine line. It didn’t sound like four soloists playing together, it sounded like a section made up of four individual voices.

MR: Yeah, I love that and also the four individual voices having charts written by folks like Tom Scott and even Greg Adams.

DK: That had a lot to do with it. You can’t just leave this stuff to chance. The heyday of the horn sections in these seminal bands all revolved around great horn arrangers that understood how to write for the instrument. We couldn’t just leave that to chance, so that’s why we enlisted the incredible talent of these guys that were writers of those classic songs. Greg Adams was the principle horn arranger for Tower Of Power and Tom Scott, who is a great saxophone player in and of himself, wrote these great horn section parts for tons of stuff like Michael Jackson, a lot of the things that Quincy Jones did, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney… This guy was responsible for so many great horn charts. Then we had Gordon Goodwin do sort of the centerpiece of this album, which was a new version of “Take Five,” which was just four saxophones and a standup bass. Gordon Goodwin is kind of a modern day brilliant horn arranger who outdid himself on this particular piece.

MR: Was it hard to come up with just twelve songs?

DK: I think with any covers project, depending on your theme, it’s always difficult if there’s a rich history to cull from, and certainly, that’s the case here. There’s way too much music. But once we decided on how we wanted to approach this–which was really going for the more meatier stuff, the more melodic, because we’re instrumentalists–then that kind of veered us away from the party songs. A great band, for example, is Kool & The Gang. It has so many great songs and the horn section was a huge part of that group, or The Ohio Players, for example. Those two bands have so much music. But the music kind of tends to be a little bit more dance-y and great groove stuff, but melodically, for sax players, there’s not as much meat on the bone as say for Earth, Wind, & Fire stuff or Chicago stuff that has great melodies that we can all sink our teeth into. It was conference calls…we were all on the road at the time, late November and December of last year, so it all came together very quickly. We were in the studio the first week of January recording this. We had a very tight timetable to actually get it together. Those were spirited conversations where people would be arguing for their particular choices and there would be some good-natured arguments about which songs were the right twelve songs. You could go any which-way and you can’t really go wrong here with this music. Hopefully, the choice that we did–which was really primarily influenced by our album title and the name of our group, which is Summer Horns–we just wanted to have a good time and party. Listening to this album, hopefully the listener will be reminded of this golden era of music, of the great horn sections and all these great songs that are so much a part of our musical fabric. And they don’t go out of style. They’re still classic.

MR: They are. Your opening track, “Always There,” sets the album up with that section sound, although it also gives everybody a distinct voice as well.

DK: Yeah, I have to give a lot of credit to our producer, Paul Brown. I came to him with this idea and he said, “I’m in.” And boy, did he jump in with everything. He brought a lot of energy. That was his idea, actually, “Always There,” which is a great sax piece by Ronnie Laws. I would’ve never thought of doing that. That was a classic instrumental piece from the late seventies and to my knowledge, it’s never been redone. So doing it with four saxophones and applying that kind of treatment was really fresh. This arrangement, which was kind of spearheaded by him, is a perfect first track because it introduces all of these voices to the listener and immediately says, “This is not a Mindi record or a Gerald record or Richard record or a Dave record, this is a Summer Horns record.” Our tour will be the same way. People will be coming, they might see my name or Richard’s or Gerald’s or Mindi’s, and that may bring them to the show. But what they’ll see is something that they’ve never seen before.

MR: You have Jeffrey Osborne on your version of “God Bless The Child,” done as a Blood, Sweat, & Tears nod, I imagine.

DK: I don’t know if you’ve heard his standards record that just came out a few months ago? That guy is just one of the greatest singers of all time. Of course, he’s had hits, and I think he’s pretty well appreciated and has had a long career. But man, I saw him sing that song all the way from start to finish and that’s what you hear on that take. He had never sung that song before. He knew it, obviously, but he had never sung it before. He jumped at the opportunity and I watched it just come out of him effortlessly. It was remarkable. That guy is a great communicator. I think he’s sixty years old or maybe even over sixty now, looks like he’s thirty five, in incredible shape, and he’s a consummate singer. He never stops. He has that incredible voice. I could say the same about McDonald. Michael was always going to be the choice for “So Very Hard To Go.” I knew I wanted him to come on this album and we’ve been friends for a long time touring and stuff, so I approached him with this idea of doing “So Very Hard To Go,” the Tower Of Power song, and I love how things like this work. He was in a Home Depot, he tells me this story…he’s such a regular guy. He’s getting something for his house, he’s getting ready to do a project on his house and he hears over the speakers, “So Very Hard To Go,” the Tower Of Power version, and it actually caught his attention and he said, “Wow, great song. I wonder if anybody’s going to ever do that again.” Just filed it away, that’s it. The next week, I call up with this song and he said at that point he knew that he was meant to do it and he applied everything he’s got to it. It’s one of the more spirited and more exciting vocal performances I’ve heard from him in a long time. I’m very proud of that.

MR: Another guest on your album, Brian Culbertson. How did he join on with the troupe?

DK: Actually, Brian is a good buddy of mine for many, many years, and people know him, of course, for being a piano superstar and a great producer and songwriter. But if you’ve ever seen one of his shows, you know that he’s kind of the guy that’s bringing the trombone into the modern era. He just eats that instrument alive. So I talked to Brian in the beginning about producing some of this because he would’ve been a fantastic producer on this album too and he was very excited about it but because it was coming down so quickly, he ended up not being able to do it. But he said, “If you don’t save me a spot to play on this, I’ll never talk to you again.” I said, “Culby, we’ll find a spot for you.” So there’s a big trombone solo in “Hot Fun In The Summertime,” and he, of course, came in and nailed it. He played trombone on a couple of other tracks with Rick Braun to provide a bit of brass and the trumpet. This is Summer Horns, it’s not Summer Saxophones, so trumpet and trombone, as well as saxophones, these are the instruments that make up a horn section. We felt that it was important to have those voices heard on this album as well.

MR: Was the Tower Of Power album Back To Oakland in 1974 the first one you ever bought?

DK: That is, with my own money I bought that album and I wore it out. I’ll never forget that. Then, many years later, I met the Tower Of Power guys and I befriended them but then on one of our yearly cruises, we had them as our special guests and all twelve of them or however many of them there were at the time came on the ship to do a special show and I was able to present them on stage and I had to bribe them to do it but they let me play a song with them and I will never forget that. That was one of the high points of my life, to be able to join Tower Of Power on stage at one of our cruises.

MR: Wow, what’s the song that was immortalized that night?

DK: That was “What Is Hip?” The classic.

MR: What would you tell Dave Koz of 1974 after the tremendous career you’ve had?

DK: Man, I was the most awkward kid you could ever imagine. If it wasn’t for the saxophone that I picked up… I don’t think I got that album until ’75 because it was right around the time I picked up the saxophone and I was thirteen when I picked up the sax, and why that album, I’m not sure as opposed to the other possibilities of the time, because nobody in my house was listening to Tower Of Power. I’m not sure how I found out about them. But what I would say is, “You’re going to be okay,” because I was a mixed-up kid, there were a lot of things going on in my mind. I was struggling, I was very socially awkward like a lot of kids that age, just trying to find some sort of semblance of who you are. Music was the great reflection for me. I was able to pick up the saxophone and by playing the instrument, I was able to find a way to socialize and find a way to communicate with people and it really brought me out of my shell and for that, I am forever grateful. I would probably say to that young kid, “Stick with the sax, don’t worry about it, it’s going to be your best friend for the rest of your life.”

MR: Beautiful. What advice do you have for new artists?

DK: Well the advice is “Use what you’ve got.” Use what you as a new artist on the scene have that we barely had when we were starting out, and that is the vast power of a global audience that you can connect to. Now, of course, there’s all kinds of issues that are raised with that–how do you access them, what do you do, which outlets do you use… For me, I’m playing catch-up on the social media space. I’m trying to figure out how to access all this information, all these people, all these applications, and I’m trying to figure it out because I’m an old school guy. I started doing all this twenty-five years ago, so this is all new. But for someone coming up on the scene right now who is very nimble with all this new media, the world is your oyster. You don’t have to play the game by the old rules, you can make up your own rules, new rules, coming up from this point on. Embrace what’s here for you that wasn’t for all of us and do it on your own terms. You don’t have to do it in any way that it was done before. It’s the Wild, Wild West of the music world.

MR: [laughs] It is. I like that, “You’ve got to do it your own way,” and I’m with you, they actually have the opportunity to do it how they want to do it. They don’t have to fit into the cookie cutter that the music business has been over the years.

DK: The music business has been in the toilet for ten years. Most people in media and most artists and record companies and pretty much everybody’s had a little bit of a bad attitude about it, like, “Oh my God, our business is completely screwed.” I don’t know about you, but I feel like the tide has turned on that and, of course, the model has changed. But I do believe that music is on its way up again. It never actually went down, but the business had to try and figure itself out and now I feel that we’ve turned the corner and there will be a new business model. There are so many positives about this, you don’t really hear as much negativity about our business as you once did a couple years ago. I think there’s a lot of really, really bright spots. How do you explain the mass hysteria of certain clips on YouTube and how many millions of people are watching music? It’s incredible! Music is very alive right now. It seems very healthy. You just have to figure out how it works on a financial basis. I’m sure it will work itself out some way.

MR: You know what’s nice about that though in my opinion? It’s making people make the dedication to the music part of it before the business part. Then the business part will come along and that will work its way in, but you’re coming into it sort of more from a level of creativity, from a level of, “I have to do this because I’m really a musician.” It isn’t about making the millions, you know?

DK: Yeah, and I’m not even sure whether people that are truly honest with their art can go into it and feel like they’re going to have a really successful career if money is the motivator. I don’t know anybody that’s a serious or true authentic artist that has money as their main motivator. I don’t think it lasts. If that’s the case and you have some talent and some good promotional stuff, you may have a little spurt, some excitement. But I don’t think it’s something that can last for a long time if your heart and your passion is not there. That’s what it’s all about, that’s what people respond to. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is, the style or who’s making it. If people feel it, if there’s something true and authentic there, then people will feel it. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to become a millionaire as a result of it, but there’s music that connects and there’s music that doesn’t connect and the ones that connect for a long period of time are the kinds of music that are based in authenticity, somebody who has to say something, and is saying something with their music.

MR: Right, perhaps as you are saying something with Summer Horns.

DK: Nice way to bring it back, babe.

MR: [laugh] I just want to thank you again for your time on this. It’s been sweet as always. I did not expect a Koz project like this, but on the other hand, I feel like it makes total sense. It’s like, “Yeah, I guess he hasn’t done this yet and it was a long time coming.”

DK: Well, you’ve been a long time supporter and I appreciate that so much. The main thing is that I want to keep you and other folks guessing. For me and my audience, I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over. There’s no point in that! People have enough of my music. They’ve got enough music for the rest of their lifetime if they like that. But going up to bat and having that bat and doing something different, absolutely. And who knows whether it will be successful, but again, if it comes from the heart, if it’s authentic, if it’s true, then at least I can say it was an earnest attempt at making music from my heart. I totally feel that way about this album. I really love it and I’m excited to share it with people.

MR: And there’s a tour, of course?

DK: Yeah, our tour starts in about two weeks. I’m very excited. We’re just getting into rehearsals next week and the tour itself will be very different from anything anyone’s ever seen of mine, primarily because there’ll be four of us on stage for the most part all show long. It’s exciting. This music for a summer tour out there having fun with a killer band, I think it’s a good recipe. I think we’re going to have some fun.

MR: Is there anything else on the horizon?

DK: Our cruise. This is going to be my eighth cruise, but it’s our second to Europe, September 22nd to the 29th. I’m very excited about that. It’s starting in Rome and going to Greece for one week.

MR: Sounds like fun. Koz, all the best with everything. Thanks again for your time.

DK: Great talking with you, Mike, as always. Thank you so much.]

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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