His new project sets out to prove that when it comes to sax, more is better

By Jeff Tamarkin

“There was a big sigh of relief that first day in the studio when we made a sound together and it was really good,” saxophone giant Dave Koz is saying. He’s referring to the first recording session for his new album Summer Horns. Until that moment, the record was nothing more than a high-minded concept—get four smooth-jazz sax players together to reinterpret classics that featured horn sections front and center. “Until then, we didn’t know whether this would work,” Koz says. “We’d never played together at the same time.”

Joined by fellow sax aces Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot, Koz knocks out spirited new instrumental and vocal readings of songs like Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4,” the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons,” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).” Michael McDonald lends his voice to Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard to Go,” Brian Culbertson’s trombone is featured on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and Rick Braun and Jonathan Butler add soul to Stevie Wonder’s already soulful “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” “God Bless the Child” is sung by Jeffrey Osborne in an arrangement that’s closer to the Blood, Sweat & Tears cover than Billie Holiday’s original.

Summer Horns was a labor of love for Koz, who grew up on those horn-heavy hits of the late ’60s and ’70s. “This was the stuff that I loved and one of the main reasons I became a saxophone player,” he says. “I felt if I was lucky to be in this business long enough, maybe one day I’d be able to make this album.”

Although Koz, 50, has been one of the reigning smooth jazz artists since rocketing to success with his self-titled debut album in 1990, he’s still partial to pop. “I was always more interested in that sound than jazz,” he admits. “That very lyrical, very melodic playing really affected me and influenced the way I approached the saxophone.”

When did you become a fan?

When I first picked up the saxophone, the music I was listening to was all these horn sections: Tower of Power; Chicago; Earth, Wind & Fire; James Brown; Sly and the Family Stone; and Blood, Sweat & Tears. The first record I ever bought was Tower of Power’s Back to Oakland. The horn sections in these bands weren’t relegated to the back—they were so much a part of that sound, you couldn’t imagine those groups without the horn section.

Why four sax players?

I was thinking, “How could we make this sound different? How can we come up with our own horn section sound?” And the thought occurred to me, “What if we do it with all saxophones?” I broached the subject with Gerald, Mindi and Richard—and they shared an equal passion for the music. They agreed to do the album and the tour before we knew what we would sound like.

Why include “Take Five”? 

We were on a conference call talking about material, whittling down the song list, and it was the day after Dave Brubeck had passed away. We thought, “Is there a way to do that song and give it a unique spin?” That’s when the idea came to do it with four saxophones and bass. Gordon Goodwin, the great arranger, did a beautiful job—and it became kind of the centerpiece on the album.

Is covering songs challenging?

It was a delicate balance. You can’t improve these songs. The original versions are perfect, so the best you can do is reimagine them, come up with a slightly new take—and hopefully inspire some people with the new versions.

Was the approach new for you?

It was a new experience for me to just show up as part of an ensemble. This project was so freeing, because I didn’t write any of the music except for one song that’s a bonus track. I could just come into the studio and focus on playing great saxophone.

Was there any sense of competition?

There’s no such thing in this group—and I think you’d hear the same answer from the other three. We all really respect each other’s music and understand that everybody approaches their instrument differently and brings different things to the party. There’s no point in competing—all I can do is what I do, and let them do what they do. The result is 1+1+1+1 equals 100.

Why did horn sections fade from popular music?

Everything is cyclical—and I actually think horns are coming back. I remember in the 1980s, you couldn’t have a pop song and get on the radio without a sax solo. Then suddenly you didn’t hear that again for 20 years. Now we’re starting to hear horns come back into popular music with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Capital Cities, Daft Punk. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a resurgence of horn sections. I feel like this album is well timed, riding that trend.

What drew you to the sax?

My brother had a band that was doing weddings, bar mitzvahs and fraternity parties, and I wanted to be in that band. I didn’t care what instrument I played. Finally he said, “Look, the only way you’re going to get in the band is if you play the sax, because we don’t have a sax player.” So I picked up the saxophone and practiced my butt off for two years, and finally my brother, just to get me off his back, said OK. I never, ever planned on being a solo artist. I didn’t even plan on being a professional musician. I went to college for mass communications and was fully planning on having a regular job. But one thing led to another, and music just happened for me. It was really the greatest surprise.

Recall your favorite recording session.

One of my favorites was the time Luther Vandross sang on one of my albums. Even though I didn’t play that day, I was so excited. We got the studio set up an hour beforehand. I knew what he wanted to drink and the mood lighting he liked. When I walked into the studio he was already waiting for us—without an entourage! He just said, “I’m here to sing, and I want to make sure I do a great job for you.” That work ethic has stayed with me. When I work on other artists’ projects, I want to go above and beyond, just like he did for me. He could have been a diva and I would have been happy to serve that, but he wasn’t.

Worst session?

I’ve done so many embarrassing projects—and some were my own! But you know what? You plow through it. And I’ve been able to find a little musicality in every one I’ve done. If I go to a session and hear the music and it’s not my cup of tea, I can always find some nugget of goodness. You can walk away from every recording session having learned something.

Who do you want to work with?

I’ve been very fortunate to work with many throughout my career—but Elton John would be at the top of the list. I love what he stands for, and the fact that he’s still so popular after so many years. He’s always doing something creative. Billy Joel, too. I’ve never worked with Sting and would love to. As far as newer artists, Janelle Monae is an artist I’m completely enamored with. And Bruno Mars—I’d be thrilled to play saxophone for him.

How has your music evolved?

When I first started, I just made a record. I didn’t know who I was as an artist. I painted a little picture and hoped people liked it. When people liked it, the next picture was more honed in on a style. Then I kept honing. I think I’ve gotten to know what I do and how that’s different from what others do. For me it’s always been about melody, and the more I realize that that’s what people want to hear from me, the better it is.

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