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An interview with Dave Koz-music pioneer to perform July 4th at Ravinia Chicago

Dave Koz
Photo Credit: Greg Allen

I recently had the honor and privilege of chatting with multi-GRAMMY Award nominated smooth jazz pioneer, Dave Koz, via telephone, prior to his Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns 2014 tourstop at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park (near Chicago) on Friday, the 4th of July. Holiday concerts hold a special appeal, like the ringing in of the New Year during a New Years Eve show or even a Christmas performance. I had the most wonderful opportunity to witness first hand just such a show, a Dave Koz and Friends Christmas at the Palladium in Indianapolis...what a performance it was. [see Dave Koz and Friends Christmas review here]. Koz continues to achieve notable and impressive results in his solo career and those with whom he collaborates. He is a consummate professional who has a sincere love of his profession and a complete dedication to and passion for his craft. He strives to push personal boundaries through his music.

William Kelly Milionis: Hi Dave, thank you so very much for this interview. Truly an honor and a privilege to chat with you. How are you?
Dave Koz: I'm fine thank you. I am actually at home this morning but I will be going to the studio in a little bit. I'm in the midst of making a Christmas album that's actually coming to fruition. Pretty close to being done. We're starting mixing already. So it's ninety degrees here, somewhere in that vicinity, in Los Angeles and here inside we're keeping the studio nice and cold with extra AC so it feels like Christmas, inside at least (chuckling).
Kelly: (chuckling) that's great!
Dave: You gotta wear sweaters and stuff (more chuckling).

Kelly: This last year has been tremendous for you with the release of your latest album, Summer Horns on June 11th, 2013. Since then, Summer Horns received a GRAMMY Award nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album; has been on the Billboard Charts for a year peaking at number 1; and, you are currently enjoying the start of your second-leg of your Summer Horns Tour. Congratulations!
Dave: Well, thank you! Thank you. I think it's proof positive that it was a good idea whose time had come. It was always something in my mind that felt at some point that this album would be made. The right timing would happen. Because, the music that it celebrates is the music that primarily is the reason I'm a saxophone player. When I listened to Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire, these bands were the seminal bands of my musical DNA. All of that music is so powerful in opening up my eyes to my own musicality that I figured at some point there would be this right timing to do an album with all these great bands and all the music they provided us. When it came time to do it, I floated the idea with three other saxophone players. The idea in my head, instead of doing it with a trumpet and trombone, that kind of thing, was to do it with all saxophones. And, the three people that I went to all said yes - Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair. And, that started our journey. We made the album and then we had the most wonderful time last year on tour. I remember the last week of the tour, we were all bittersweet because this was the end of the run. We all looked at each other and I knew what everybody was thinking. Somebody had to say it. So, I sort of blurted it out. What do think about doing it again next summer? And, everybody said, YES, LET'S DO IT! So then, here we are in summer number two.

Kelly: I believe your first album ever purchased was Tower of Power's "Back To Oakland".
Dave: Yes, it was.
Kelly: Being that it was your first album purchase, it probably had a major influence on your musical career. How did it feel to be working with Richard Elliot?
Dave: (kid-in-a-candy-store giggles) Well, Richard was one of the members of Tower of Power later on
Kelly: yes...
Dave: I've known Richard for so many years. It's funny, I used to go see Richard Elliot at a club in Los Angeles that's no longer there. This was the beginning of his career. He was not that much older than me, maybe a few years older than me, but that difference was a big difference. I used to go and see him and watch him transform this club. He was as hot as hot could be in the mid-eighties in Los Angeles when he was just kind of starting out. So, we became friends way back when. And then, when he joined Tower of Power, I saw him with Tower a number of times. But I also got a chance to know the Tower of Power guys very well; 'Doc' Kupka, the famous baritone sax player, Emilio Castillo, the tenor sax player and Greg Adams, who was the principal horn arranger for Tower of Power and did half the arrangements on the Summer Horns album. These guys became good friends later on. I even got the chance to play with them when I hosted them one time on our cruise. And, I had the absolute gall to ask Tower of Power, I said, "do you mind, can I just sit in for one song" thinking, well I might as well have a dream come true. And, they were kind enough to say yes! I was so nervous. I mean, I was like a little schoolboy with my nerves. Sitting in with this band, that was so important to me as I was growing up and who are still to this day very, very important to my musical personality.

Kelly: You'll be performing this 4th of July, Friday, at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park (near Chicago). Have you ever performed on the 4th of July before?
Dave: I think the last time we played, it was a number of years ago in Southern California at a place called Newport Beach. That's the last time that I remember a 4th of July show. I cannot think of a better place to be than at Ravinia on the 4th of July which is SO AMERICA! It's such a great outdoor feel and beautiful venue. I've played there only once before and it's been many, many years, but I've always remembered how beautiful the park is, how it feels inside there, and the way it made me feel being on that stage. I know that people in Chicago love going there. And, we've been trying to get into Ravinia for many, many years. For whatever reason, it just hasn't worked out. We've played other venues in Chicago, but here we are on the 4th of July at Ravinia! When I first saw that come across as a possibility for this summer, I said, YES! YES! YES! I'm so excited to come there. I know that all of us, our whole band, and honestly everybody, is just super excited to spend the holiday right there in Chicago.

Kelly: Do you have anything special planned for your 4th of July show?
Dave: The Summer Horns show has been around, as I mentioned, touring for a year and we played in Chicago last year outside at, I forget exactly where it was, Country Club Hills I think it was, but we are developing a new show for this Summer Horns Tour and absolutely we will do something special for the holiday. I don't know exactly yet, because we haven't had a rehearsal, but I will suspect that we will be doing some patriotic musical tributes and I think we'll have some fun! You know, one of my favorite songs, favorite melodies of all time actually is the song, God Bless America. I love that song. And so, I'm pretty sure that at least for me, I know that I'll be doing it that day.

Kelly: As you have included several tracks on your Summer Horns album from the bands Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire (bands from Chicago) and you spent a portion of your early career with Richard Marx (also from Chicago), does Chicago hold a special place in your heart?
Dave: Oh, of course it does! I mean, just from the standpoint of the fact it's probably in the top two favorite cities that I like to go to; that I love to travel to in the United States. It's such a great city. It's filled with culture and food and great restaurants and great people and great walking areas and you got the lake and you got, I mean just the pizza and Garrett popcorn - forget about it, you got me there. Then you throw in the music and all of the cultural aspects of it and it's a world class city. I travel there usually twice a year; once in the summertime and once in the wintertime. For me, in the winter there, I don't care what I'm doing or how cold it is, I'm a California boy, so I'm not really brave in cold weather, I'll get myself all bundled up with multiple coats, mitts and earmuffs and no matter how cold it is, I will walk down and do my shopping on Michigan Avenue. Have to spend that day doing that because there is nothing more festive and Christmassy. The thing Chicago really knows how to do is celebrate the holidays. That's one thing I can say and I'm really excited to be there on such an important holiday for Americans and also, as you mentioned, there's a lot of musical connections for me in the city that will be on that stage that day.

Kelly: You, Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot have provided a unique twist to the cover songs on Summer Horns and provided, through the collaboration, songs that are unique and fresh. How did the original track Summer Horns come about?
Dave: That actually was a song that I wrote some time ago with Rick Braun and Brian Culbertson. I played it for Paul Brown, who is our producer, and because we were making this album with all covers and usually when people make albums, especially in our genre, they make an album of all originals and maybe do one cover. This was an album, I've never made an album that had all of these classic songs and we thought wouldn't it be fun to do all covers and one original. I played it for Paul and he loved it and he helped kind of rework what we had had before to work for the four horns, four saxophones and that became the basis for that song Summer Horns. To your point, songwriting is an elusive art form. It's a very funny thing. I've been doing it for my professional life and you figure that all the music goes in one ear and stays in your brain somewhere in there, in your soul, and then when it comes time to writing music you can't not be influenced by everything that you've heard before. There's only twelve notes, the sum of the stuff that comes out in a familiar way. The key in the talent, is to do it in a way that people haven't heard before. So, when they hear it, there's a blend of something that's familiar and also something that's new. And, I think that's what hit songs are all about. Something that's not too foreign, sounds familiar, but it's gotta new twist to it. There is a delicate balance and is something that people who are great songwriters, people whom I respect and admire so much, I think they would all agree you never know when it's going to strike, when that stroke of lightening will come and it all comes together. I've written songs that are absolute pieces of crap (chuckling) and songs that somehow you think might not be so great but something about it that connects with people and then songs that I thought that were really, really great that nobody's ever heard, even though I've recorded them on albums and they become really deep album cuts nobody knows. So it's really funny, it's a head scratcher. Richard Marx wrote a song for the Christmas album that we are doing. He is such a brilliant songwriter. His ability to just kind of capture that essence of a mood and a lyric and put the right lyric with the right melody. It's an art that I'm in awe of when you see it as plain as day, right there in front of you, as somebody who just does it so effortlessly is something to behold.

Kelly: But, when you look at the songs that you've written that have touched your fans and touched others in a way that they become extremely popular, you have to feel a good sense of pride and joy as well. You are one of those rare individuals, a truly remarkable talent where every time you play your instrument, whether you feel good, or are having a bad day, or are under the weather, you always touch one's soul, and that's a gift. But, you then go beyond that and actually stir one's soul with your material. You are a consummate professional. How is it that you find collaborators who are like minded and able to push you to another level. And, how do you push others to that level?
Dave: Well, first of all, thank you for those very nice words. You made my day. This is a good call for me to get on a day like today (chuckling).
Kelly: Just being honest...
Dave: Sometimes, you wake up and you go oh boy, who's gonna find me out today. I've been doing this for a long time. Next year is going to be twenty-five years of record making and it's really been totally a mystery to me how it's all happened. I feel like looking outside into my career, it looks like there has been a master plan. There's not only no master plan, but there has been no plan at all. It's just been, put one foot in front of the other a day. You talk about how do I find the collaborators, I don't really find anybody, people find me. Things just sort of happen. It's like meeting at an intersection, things that you don't plan. You meet somebody or you pass somebody and then that person becomes a collaborator. And, I've learned so much. You never know what you're going to get when you work with somebody new and the mystery of that is what keeps me coming back for more. Because, yes, there's been times when you don't get anything and then there's times that you can't imagine the wealth of knowledge that comes from working with somebody new. I put a call out yesterday to an artist who I will not mention because it's not happened yet to be a guest on this Christmas album. He is about as far away from what I do than anybody could possibly imagine. I talked to his manager and I said I love this guy, he's a rapper I've loved him for a long time. I respect him a lot and I have a spot for him on this album and I would really love for this to happen. And he said, well, I think this may be something that he might be interested in doing. Now, it hasn't happened yet, but if it does happen...this is gonna turn some heads! That's the beauty of music. Music can bring people together in a way no other art can. It can meld such disparate worlds together in a communication that is very privileged and very special, unlike any other form of art. It humbles me. It keeps me very inspired and even if it doesn't happen, the fact I had a conversation with his manager is unbelievable...I was giddy with the idea!

Kelly: Back to your 4th of July Summer Horns Tour performance. Will you will be including original material from Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot?
Dave: Yes, all three of them Gerald, Mindi and Richard all have new albums; Mindi's came out a couple of weeks ago and Richard's and Gerald's will be coming out shortly. They'll all be playing some new music from their new projects. And, I'll have some of my non-Summer Horns music represented in this show. There's been a nice variety of people who are Mindi fans, Richard and Gerald fans who get a chance to hear them in solo form and also in Summer Horns. We just don't know whether there will ever be another Summer Horns Tour. I hope there will be, but that's the nice thing about doing these tours is that it does have a sense that this is special. And you're witnessing something that you may not ever get a chance to see it again.

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Friday, July 4th, 2014 at Ravinia Festival

DAVE KOZ AND FRIENDS Summer Horns 2014
with Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot

Ravinia Festival
418 Sheridan Road
Highland Park, Illinois 60035
Phone: 847-266-5100
All ages show.

Gates open: 5:00pm / Show: 8:00pm

Tickets: Ravinia.org