California-based musician and bandleader Dave Koz, a melodic soprano and alto saxophone player, has performed and collaborated under the jazz umbrella for most of his 20-year career, but the term jazz is one that he loosely applies to his vocation and music.
Touring this summer behind a collaborative album titled “Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns,” he and his versatile ensemble put a few groovy jazz twists on classic pop, soul and funk hits and favorites.
Koz and the Summer Horns Tour will land at the Lowcountry Jazz Festival at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center this weekend. Fans can expect a variety of melodies, rhythms and moods on the set list.
“I've always been a big proponent of putting music first and labels second,” says Koz. “Music is music, and if you like it, you like it. Who cares what it's called? One of the big examples of that these days is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest where they have headliners like Bruce Springsteen. You see a lot of jazz festivals with rock headliners.”
An eight-time Grammy Award nominee, Koz has stepped in and out of different contemporary jazz circles, from fusion keyboardist Jeff Lorber's and vocalist Richard Marx's groups to the house band on “The Pat Sajak Show” and “The Emeril Lagasse Show,” and as the host of nationally syndicated radio programs.
His main gig these days is recording and touring with his super-tight funk/jazz combo Dave Koz & Friends.
“The term 'jazz' has now become a more broad and inclusive term. It's the true American art form, so it carries an artistic vibe with it,” Koz. “It conveys an attitude about arts. I've never been a fan of labels, really. I think labels can be harmful and lock you into a cage that's not necessarily by the artist's choice. One classic example of that is the term 'smooth jazz,' which is polarizing for a lot of people. Some true traditional jazz fans look at smooth jazz and tend to think of it as simply light music, whereas it's just music. Putting 'jazz' into the description opens up a can of worms for some people.”
“I'm just doing the music that I feel is true to me and that I want to express through my instrument,” Koz adds. “I hope, at the end of the day, that people will respond to it and like it. I've been able to do this for more than 20 years now, and it's the greatest gift and blessing. I'm blown away by the fact that I get to do what I do.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, the 50-year-old Koz lives in Southern California and retreats up the coast to Sausalito, Calif., for songwriting and arranging sessions whenever he gets a chance.
He released his first proper solo album, a self-titled collection, in 1990. His assertive, energetic style and pop sensibilities attracted fans from several corners of the music world.
“I was always a melody-driven musician from the earliest days,” Koz says. “There are saxophone players who can blow circles around me technically, but that never really was my thing. I responded in my earliest days to the guys who played great melodies. They'd play great solos, too, of course, but it was their melodies that really caught my ear. Players like Tom Scott and David Sanborn were certainly influential. So were Grover Washington Jr., Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and a lot of the more traditional sax players like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. But when it came down to it, the players who really soared on those melodies were the ones who caught my ear.”
Through the '90s and 2000s, Koz experimented within different genres, from light jazz and urban contemporary to more cinematic and orchestral realms.
“When it came time to become a serious solo musician and composer, which is something I hadn't planned to happen, I ended up coming at it with more of a pop approach with songwriting and presentation,” Koz says. “Pop, R&B and funk was what I grew up with more than jazz.”
On his “Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns” album, he decided to take several different approaches. Musically, he wanted to revisit and celebrate some of his favorite pop hits and funk numbers from his childhood years.
Instrumentally, he hoped to assemble a four-piece saxophone frontline of close friends and colleagues, including Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot.
“I wanted this album to pay tribute to that era of music, the horn-band era. I enlisted the help of three other saxophone players who were my friends and, coincidentally, also shared my love, respect and enthusiasm for the classic horn bands,” Koz says. “We put our horns together and had a blast.”
Koz credits producer Paul Brown (Al Jarreau, George Benson, June Tabor, Boney James) for guiding the four-member team of saxophones and additional musical guests such as trumpeter/flugelhornist Rick Braun, trombonist Brian Culbertson and vocalists Michael McDonald, Jeffrey Osborne and Jonathan Butler through the new arrangements, many of which were charted by Koz's idol, Tom Scott, Greg Adams, the chief horn arranger for Tower of Power, and Gordon Goodwin of the Big Phat Band.
“It was so exciting for all us to work with our heroes on this project. Having them passing out the parts and reading them with everyone was great,” Koz says of the producers and arrangers. “Recording it all was challenging, but it was very collaborative. It gave us an opportunity to get really fired up. It was so different from anything we usually do, and it was truly rewarding.”
Their brassy rendition of “Got to Get You Into My Life” climbed to No. 1 on the Mediabase Smooth Adult Contemporary chart during its first few weeks on the radio.
“Hot Fun in the Summertime” and their version of Ronnie Laws' classic instrumental “Always There” also enjoyed strong response and airplay this year.
“Taking these songs and going from an album to a live show with them was another new experience,” Koz says. “Watching it reveal itself to an audience and watching their faces light up with each song was great. They're like little bits of nostalgia if you're of a certain age.”
Koz and his ensemble look forward to kicking off the three-day jazz festival Friday at the Performing Arts Center.
Charleston-based pianist Darrell Ravenell will perform Friday as will Jazz in Pink, an ensemble of female musicians featuring keyboardist Gail Johnson and guest saxophonist Paula Atherton.
Koz and his Summer Horns saxophone team of Abair, Albright and Elliot will enjoy the backing of a special rhythm section comprised of Frank “Third” Richardson on drums, Nathaniel Kearney Jr. on bass, Tracy Carter on keys and touring musical director Randy Jacobs on guitar.
“It's a cool situation because the rhythm section is an all-star lineup,” Koz says. “Each one of us saxophone players got to pick musicians and assemble the band from individual members from our own backing bands. We all put our minds together to build this all-star rhythm section, and it's fantastic.”
Well versed in vintage funk and contemporary jazz, and well-rehearsed from months of summer touring, the entire Summer Horns band should be on top of their game for the show.
“Things fell into place beautifully, and much better than I ever could have planned,” Koz says. “We have four very talented, very generous saxophonists on stage who each have a lot of mutual respect for each other, great respect for the music we're playing. We understand the art of collaboration, so when we combine the efforts on a project like this, you get this wonderful thing. I like what our tour says nonmusically about people who are essentially competitors in their field who've put competition aside and putting cooperation up front for something much larger than the individual. It's about putting teamwork front-and-center. That's what I'm most proud about with this album and tour.”
Earlier this year, when the North Charleston Performing Arts Center and event producer Jazz Diva Entertainment initially announced the lineup for the fifth Lowcountry Jazz Festival, one of the big names on the roster was Grammy Award-winning keyboardist and composer George Duke, an elder statesman in the world of funk, contemporary jazz and fusion.
Like Koz's “Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns” album, Duke's most recent studio release, 2010's “Deja Vu,” also revisited some funk and soul oriented pieces from the 1970s, many of which were Duke's own compositions.
The album features guest performances by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, flutist Hubert Laws and saxophonist Bob Sheppard.
The tracks bounced from light-hearted and spiritual smooth jazz to more edgy funk-rock grooves in the vein of Parliament/Funkadelic or Sly Stone.
Duke grew up in the San Francisco area playing trombone, bass and keyboards. He was as fascinated with classical composition and traditional jazz as he was with contemporary rock, funk and soul.
In the '70s, Duke established himself as a technically dazzling and soulful keyboardist, playing with a variety of artists like innovative bassist Stanley Clarke, aggressive drummer Billy Cobham, legendary trumpeter Miles Davis and popular vocalist Al Jarreau.
Duke was originally scheduled to headline the Lowcountry Jazz Festival's Saturday evening event alongside Stanley Clarke. Sadly, he died Aug. 5 in Los Angeles after losing a long battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He was 67.
Organizers have rescheduled the Saturday roster with lefty guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jonathan Butler, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, in the headlining spot. Butler's recent album “Grace & Mercy” debuted in 2012 as Billboard's No. 1 Contemporary Jazz Album.
Chicago-based electric guitarist Nick Colionne, a veteran in the smooth jazz and funk world, also will perform Saturday.
Both will perform alongside various guest musicians in a celebration of Duke's life and legacy.
Washington-based saxophonist Brian Lenair will open Saturday's show. The night will close with an after-party set featuring old-school R&B from the Peace and Love Band.
“Despite his absence, audiences can expect to leave the show with heart-warming musical memories of Duke,” festival organizers stated in a press release sent last week announcing his passing.
The lineup Sunday will feature guitarist Chuck Loeb, keyboardist Jeff Lorber and sax player Everette Harp, who are touring together as Jazz Funk Soul.
Pianist Joe Sample and vocalist Randy Crawford also are on the bill. The day will start with a jazz brunch featuring Swedish-American keyboardist Jonathan Fritzen.
Charleston's own trumpeter and bandleader Charlton Singleton, conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and a member of Jazz Artists of Charleston, will open Sunday's show at the PAC.