Saxophonist Dave Koz, who just released his eighth Christmas album, Christmas Ballads, will bring his annual Christmas tour to Connor Palace Theatre on Sunday, Dec. 11, to celebrate the tour's 25th anniversary. Joining Koz on the run will be Rick Braun, Peter White, Keiko Matsui and Rebecca Jade.
The concert will feature pianist David Benoit, trumpeter Rick Braun and guitarist Peter White, the same guys who accompanied Koz on the road in the earliest years of the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas tour. Jade is the featured vocalist on Koz's new album and sings a medley of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and "Imagine" that's on Christmas Ballads.
An advocate for instrumental music and a unapologetic smooth jazz icon, Koz spoke recently via phone from his Los Angeles home.
You’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Dave Koz & Friends Christmas tour. Take us back to the beginning. What was that first tour like?
It was 1997. The whole idea of this tour was David Benoit’s. I was interviewing him for a radio show. It was April or May of that year, and he had lost his mom, and I had lost my dad. Both died very suddenly. It was his idea. He wanted to go out and play some Christmas shows to work through our emotions and maybe help some other people. We had six or seven shows that first year. They were sparsely attended, but the shows were great. Peter White came the next year and then Rick Braun came the year after that. It just kept growing. We’ve been doing this so long that the people who came to that first tour bring their kids now have kids, and we’re seeing the next generation. It’s been an amazing thing. Especially being a Jew, I would never have imagined doing 25 years of Christmas tours.
Did you play Cleveland on that first tour?
I don’t know if we played Cleveland the first year. I know we played Cleveland early on. Cleveland has always been very special for us. There’s something about that city during the holidays. It’s cold, usually. There are beautiful decorations downtown. We love playing Playhouse Square. It’s very festive. The audience is always pumped for the show, and it’s been a big highlight for us since the beginning.
Did you have an album of Christmas tunes out at the time?
We did. I went into the studio and had already planned to record my first Christmas album for Capitol. That was in the hopper. Because of what had happened to be personally, there was an emotional resonance to that first album. It clicked with the audience. That’s also part of why it’s hard to explain why have I been able to do this for so long. I think it’s because in the DNA of all of it is the fact that it came from strong emotions.
What was it like to have the pandemic wipe out the 2020 Christmas tour?
I’m proud of the fact that we did a livestream. It was not an actual tour, but it was the most successful livestream we ever did. For Christmas 2020, it was powerful. People who had been coming for years and years and years did not have a show, and we were able to give them a show in their living room. It was amazing. Jonathan Butler and Rick Braun and all of my friends came and we were in a studio in Orange County, CA, and it was broadcast all over the world.
You have a new album out in advance of this tour. Talk about what you wanted to do differently with Christmas Ballads?
No mocking me, but this is my eighth Christmas album. It’s kind of funny when you think about it. It’s like, "How many Christmas albums and tours can one Jew do?" I love the holidays. There is so much meat on the bones with these songs. My biggest pitch to the producer was that we had to find 10 songs that I had never recorded. That was the biggest challenge. I have made so many Christmas albums. As we started looking at the material, it was clear to me that they were going to be ballads. Taking on that perspective was the intention and meaning. They should be things you can put on after the party over a cocktail or while sitting by the fire. That was the motivation for this album, and we wanted to do a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the tour and work with people who worked on the tour early on. I’m really proud of it. It’s ten new songs I have never recorded.
Your rendition of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which you pair with “Imagine,” stands out as an album highlight. What did you want achieve with your version of those tunes?
I’ve always loved (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”). Even though that song is now quite old, it is still one of the newer Christmas songs. It’s hard to introduce new Christmas standards. People love the traditions. This song was a new song for me. I’ve always loved it. That was the producer’s idea to pair it with "Imagine," which is not a Christmas song but has the spirit of Christmas. It’s about thinking with our future. I like the idea of having a song that’s anti-war paired with one that was pro-peace. Leave it to John Lennon to do that. To my understanding, I’m pretty sure that they have never been put into a medley. It was kind of an inspired idea.
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has a real somberness to it. Talk about doing that one.
That song was the opening of our show last year. We put that arrangement together because we had four artists on the tour, and we wanted each artist to have a statement melody. It was a very dramatic opening. It worked so well that we decided we wanted to place it on this year’s Christmas album. We weren’t sure how it was going to work. We took the live performance and morphed it into what you hear on the album. Each person gets a chance to make a statement and then we come together and it includes a bit of “My Favorite Things,” which is a nice surprise. The whole idea of Christmas music is that they carry so much emotion because we’ve been listening to them for so long that you have to be careful. You can’t go too far because then you lose the emotion of the song. It’s like walking a tightrope in the production of a Christmas album. You want to create new ways of presenting the songs, but you can’t go too far.
The album concludes with “Wrapped Up in Your Smile.” What’s the story behind that tune?
That was the one brand new song. I wasn’t sure we would have new music on this, but I had this germ of an idea and this melody. When I was in the producer’s studio, I played him this idea, and he said he would work on it. When I went back the next day, he had developed it into a full song. He played it for me, and it was gorgeous. He went off on my motif. It played itself. The first time I played it on alto saxophone to try it on for size, I had the same feeling from that song as I have had with some of the successful alto saxophone ballads that have been some of my biggest hits. I had that same feeling with this song, and I knew it was right.
In your bio, it says you are an instrumental music advocate. Do you feel like you have to defend the style of music you play?
I feel like I have had to do that for a lot of years for people who think it’s light or sleepy. Here’s the great beauty of where we’re at right. There is an explosion of instrumental music. I wouldn’t call it smooth jazz, but it’s like a cousin — whether it’s Vulfpeck or Cory Wong. There are so many of these super-hip instrumental acts garnering huge audiences of young people. Those guys making that music look to us like we’re the OGs. It’s such a great shot in the arm. I would never expect them to look at us like their heroes, but it’s happening. For me, it’s been an explosion of new energy. I love it. For anyone from the younger generation who would collaborate, I’m raising my hand. They might not be fans of mine per se, but the Cory Wong fans have accepted me as this old gray-haired guy who’s part of the family. It’s a great time for instrumental music. There’s even a documentary coming out through A24. This hipster director from New York stumbled upon our world of smooth jazz and felt motivated to tell this story. Having gone 30 years of being marginalized and put off onto the side by various forces never held me back because I do what I do. Now, there is a little more of an appreciation, and it feels really good. It’s a very sweet moment.
Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]