One of the great joys of being a longtime smooth jazz enthusiast is the opportunity every so often to share the festive, ever-grooving magic of my favorite artists in a live setting with friends who haven’t yet had the pleasure. Early in his Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour 2023 Saturday show at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center, the saxophonist and always engaging host mentioned it’s been an annual tradition since 1997 – over 25 years! I’ve lost count of how many I’ve attended – 10, 12, maybe – but one thing’s for sure. It’s always the musical highlight of the season. Still after attending so many great performances, there’s always the possibility of taking them for granted, like comfortable annual rituals rather than the fresh, marvelous evergreen events they truly are.
So it was a unique pleasure for me to share the evening with a wonderful friend new to the Koz Christmas experience and to experience through her eyes the wonder and nuance of every exciting performance, each fresh arrangement of a holiday classic, the mix of R&B/funk, intimacy and uplifting gospel energy. A fusion of exquisite beauty and ongoing party, the Koz version of Santa’s workshop, drew my friend into the holiday spirit - and made me appreciate every detail of just how special and essential the show is to, to borrow a familiar lyric, making the season bright.
While the “and friends” Koz usually invites to join the fun of his cross-country December tours are usually other genre A-lister stars, he switched things up delightfully this year, complementing the core of him and “my brother” Jonathan Butler with equally brilliant but slightly lesser known performers like saxophonist Marcus Anderson, vocalist Rebecca Jade and 16-year old South African born multi-instrumentalist phenom Justin Lee Schultz, whose 2023 debut album Just In The Moment is one of the genre’s best of the year.
Koz and Butler kicked off the nearly two-hour show showcasing their dynamic sax-guitar-vocal chemistry on an engaging medley of freshly arranged classics, seamlessly flowing through “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “We Need a Little Christmas,” “Joy to the World and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.”
Everything seemed like a “normal” but of course wonderful Koz Christmas show until Schultz popped in with a soulful version of “This Christmas” that featured him, in rapid succession on vocals, fiery electric guitar and acoustic piano. Then came the blazing sax and stage commanding charisma of Anderson, followed by Jade performing (with Anderson and Schultz on harmonies) a fascinating, funked out twist on “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” with a completely new melody. Likewise, Anderson played one of the peppiest spins through the usually staid and sacred “Silent Night” that I’ve ever heard.
After Koz and Butler joined them for a full cast romp through a playfully choreographed “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Koz took center stage (with Schultz on piano) to share his new single, “When You Wish Upon A Star” (part of an upcoming Disney themed EP), easing from lush balladry to a whimsical, percussive samba arrangement. The one aspect of the show that set it apart from previous Koz extravaganzas was when the five principals gathered around the piano for intimate talk (and of course, brief performances) of their very favorite holiday songs. These ranged from Anderson’s perky “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and Jade’s sweet “Merry Christmas Darling” to Koz’s hilarious “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!”
The cultural-religious balance of a Koz holiday show is always a treat as well, this time manifested with Koz complementing his folksy dance “Eight Candles” with snippets traditional Hanukah songs; Jade and Butler offering a shimmering, goose-bump inducing duet on “Mary Did You Know?”; Jade making a joyful noise to the Lord on “O Come All Ye Faithful” with a faux stained glass church window on the screen behind her; and Butler’s showstopping “O Holy Night,” performed with a meditational grace that invited everyone in the audience to feel each word on a soul-deep level.
Energy-wise, the flip side of that was when the whole cast joined forces as Butler took the congregation to church on his fiery gospel jam “Brand New Day.” Koz and Friends closed the evening on a thoughtful note, with some Beatlesque messaging for a world in need, starting with a thoughtful rendition of “Imagine” topped with a swelling singalong choruses of “All You Need is Love” and "Hey Jude"