Legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn once wrote about the holiday season, “It’s that time of year when the world falls in love…” Blessedly for contemporary jazz fans, that means more than simply getting cozy by the fire, hearing sleigh bells ring, dashing through the snow and lighting the tree. If it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, there’s musical magic in the air – and Dave Koz, as reliably joyful and magical as Santa, is coming to town once again.
This year, in addition to headlining his unprecedented 22nd Annual Dave Koz & Friends Tour - a whirlwind of 22 shows in 25 days - with Melissa Manchester, Jonathan Butler, Michael Lington and Chris Walker - the chart-topping Grammy nominated saxophonist is dropping a special musical present for his loyal fans and kids from 1 to 92.
Just as his 2017 collection Dave Koz and Friends 20th Anniversary served as a stirring souvenir celebrating that momentous occasion, Koz’s latest holiday album Gifts of the Season – released by the saxophonist’s Just Koz Entertainment, Inc. - makes the ideal companion piece for this year’s slate of shows. Produced, recorded and mixed by genre mega-producer (and fellow saxophonist) Darren Rahn, the multi-faceted 11 track collection features all four of the special guests joining Koz on the 2019 tour.
Koz’s collaborations with the multi-talented Rahn extend back to his days as a partner in the independent label Rendezvous Music, when they hired the Denver based musician to produce the late Wayman Tisdale’s 2004 mega hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” Rahn later produced Koz’s #1 hit “Life in the Fast Lane” and more recently has worked on brass arrangements for the Summer Horns projects and several “Lost Koz” singles – previously unreleased gems recorded over the years that were not included on his albums.
Twenty-two years after gracing fans with his first Christmas-themed set December Makes Me Feel This Way, Koz – deferring to Rahn’s studio expertise so he could focus solely on being the artist and playing the horn – takes a very different stylistic/aesthetic approach to the genre. In addition to being more instrumental and sax-centric, Gifts of the Season has a buoyant, funky/pop feel that Koz says takes “me back to my smooth jazz roots.”
Vibe-wise, their model was Koz’s gold-certified 1999 album The Dance, one of the artist’s biggest selling and most critically acclaimed releases. The Dance included the hits “Together Again” and “Can’t Let You Go (The Sha La Song),” featuring the late Luther Vandross.
The diverse session reflects Koz and Rahn’s mutual desire to find fresh, interesting and inviting ways to experience Christmas classics from different eras. With the exception of the exquisite and timely, Koz-penned piano and soprano driven closing ballad “A Prayer for Peace,” the songs are familiar holiday favorites, re-imagined in exciting, unfamiliar ways that shed new light on their rich musicality and lyrical depth. “I would say half the album is completely new and the other half is songs done in very different arrangements, thanks to Darren, than I ever could have expected,” Koz says. “After completing the basic sessions, we worked with our guest artists Melisssa, Jonathan, Michael and Chris in their home studio spaces to capture them at their most intimate, powerful best.”
A perfect example of the way a different twist can change the entire emotional trajectory of a song is Melissa Manchester’s passionate rendering of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want Is You.” As a soulful ballad, it offers much more depth and understanding of the lyrics than the pop singer’s lighthearted original version. As Koz says, “It’s one of the most played holiday songs on the radio every year, but because it’s so up-tempo, it’s easy to overlook that it’s got a lot of meat on its bones. Melissa’s version makes you stop and pay attention.”
Likewise, pairing the soul intensity of Michael Lington’s alto with Koz’s tenor drives an explosive, horn drenched bluesy old school funk soul romp through “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Koz always keeps in mind how well material will sound with the sax, and he’s excited about bringing that one to the stage with his longtime friend and colleague Lington so the two can literally raise the roof.
Jonathan Butler brings his gritty soul-gospel energy to colorful takes on secular classics from two different eras, a shuffle groovin’, African chant spiced version of the nearly 70-year-old “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” and a swinging, festive bounce through soul legend Donny Hathaway’s oft-covered 70’s smash “This Christmas,” featuring Koz on soprano and Rahn keepin’ it old school on Wurlitzer and Hammond Organ. The saxman recently hired an animator from Finland, Jones Andyou, to create an animated video of this track featuring images of Koz and Butler. The other recording and touring pal who knocks it out of the park is singer, bassist and former Al Jarreau musical director Chris Walker, who delivers the perfect blend of solemnity and classic soul power on a sparsely produced rendition of “Mary Did You Know.”
Longtime Koz fans know that the saxophonist has recorded “Winter Wonderland” several times, including on December Makes Me Feel This Way and as part of the overture to the all-star A Smooth Jazz Christmas in 2001. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have another go – until Rahn sent him his mystical and vibey, multi-tempo synth/dance arrangement, complete with wintry wind sound effects. “It reminds me of ‘Missing’ by Everything But the Girl,” Koz says. “So unique, trippy and outside the box.”
Rahn’s funky, dance jam spin on Wham’s mid-80’s smash “Last Christmas” - complete with whimsical synth swirls and Koz’s snazzy tenor, soprano, alto and bari sax textures – is one of the album’s most compelling instrumental tracks. “Never in a million years did I think it would make a great vehicle for the sax,” Koz says, “but wow, it was such a blast to play, so funky and danceable, with that cool built up sax section.”
Another vocalist Koz is excited to showcase on Gifts of the Season is Matt Cuson, whose Take-6-like vocal textures and dreamy lead voice combine with Koz’s cool tenor to bring renewed poignancy to the perennial “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The collection also features an easy flowing light funk take (complete with a hypnotic choir of vocals and energizing horn textures) on “O Come All Ye Faithful”; and a silky and sensual, coolly romantic take on Koz’s all-time favorite holiday chestnut “White Christmas.”