Not that our sense of what qualifies as “normal” will ever quite be the same after this, but in a normal year, a review of the annual Dave Koz & Friends Christmas show would focus on the usual elements that have made his annual tour an inspirational, blast-filled tradition among smooth jazz fans for nearly 25 years. The expansive set list of secular and sacred slices of holiday cheer (“We Need a Little Christmas,” Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night”). Dave’s spirited, humorous trademark ode to his own traditions via an Adam Sandler and accordion spiced Hanukkah medley; and a balance of colorful, funky/boisterous and soothing/sensual arrangements whose dynamic pace made the two hours zip by like Santa’s sleigh running way behind.
Yet this wasn’t any other year, and so the real story of The Greatest Hits of Christmas is how the genre’s master showman, already limited to a single production/presentation due to the cancellation of all concert performances, pulled off a true Christmas miracle. Not simply by having a cast and crew pull off a show with the same bright production values (including vibrant seasonal light displays, images of Santa and reindeer and snowfall) as he’s done forever onstage, but turning a potential downfall into an opportunity to weave pure magic when it was reported that originally scheduled guests Rick Braun, Richard Elliot and David Benoit had to cancel because of COVID-19 concerns.
Braun had tested positive and because he had recently done a livestream with Benoit, and had also worked not long ago with Elliot, all were forced to sit this one out. Dave made a few quick calls – and in came Michael Lington, Kenny Lattimore and Brian Simpson to pinch hit with seamless, spectacular results. The stellar lineup also included familiar Koz tour participants Jonathan Butler (who always brings the spirit and Star of Bethlehem to every performance, even of the fluffiest most secular songs) and Peter White, as well as the mega-soulful vocalist Rebecca Jade.
Jade and JB’s duets stole the show, rousing everyone who tuned in via Looped Livestream with a snazzy duet “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and later with a heartfelt, transcendent twist on “Mary, Did You Know?” Butler’s soft-spoken acoustic duet with White on “What Child Is This?” was equally gentle and uplifting. Lington joined with Koz to make “Rudolph” run like funk madness, and later spun a gentle “Silver Bells” into a frenzied jam with Butler and Koz. Wish we could have heard more from Lattimore, whose lush R&B vocal presence added poignancy to a song that hits “home” this year in ways it couldn’t have imagined a year ago. Koz’s onetime musical director Simpson subbed admirably for Benoit, pulling off the lively Charlie Brown magic, leading a medley of Vince Guaraldi classics.
Koz also found a moment to perform the passionate, slow burning title track to his new album “A New Day,” which was not only one of the genre’s best of 2020, but proof that pandemics and lockdowns can’t stop creativity from flowing where it needs to. Koz recorded it all remotely with a bevy of top- flight guests (Bob James, David Sanborn, Braun, Marc Antoine, Jeff Lorber), creating a work that can be considered, like this holiday show, a true silver lining.
The presentation was bookended with some clever animation featuring adorable and ageless cartoon versions of Koz and Butler, showcasing their great friendship and working rapport. The opening segment also featured an animated image of Benoit, gamely introducing the show.
On a personal note, I wondered how many people who were able to tune into this unique one-time presentation that might not have otherwise been able to attend had Koz & Friends been on their usual tour. I was able to watch with both my parents, who because of aging and health issues, are not as mobile as they were back in the day when I could take them regularly to smooth jazz holiday shows and the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival. I hoped that like me, other fans were able to share this inspiring experience with loved ones who also face those kinds of challenges.
I hope like the song says and which Koz and Butler sang so amiably, that “someday soon, we all will be together” and that next year, Dave Koz & Friends will be live in concert holiday business as usual. But in this crazy mad world of 2020, we should all be grateful to accept the blessings and silver linings when they come.