Grammy-nominated contemporary jazz saxophonist Dave Koz returns to 360°Sound to talk about the 24th annual Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour. This year, Koz is joined by guitarist and vocalist Jonathan Butler, trumpeter Rick Braun, saxophonist Richard Elliot, and singer Rebecca Jade. The tour, which kicked off in Atlanta on Friday, Nov. 26, will include shows throughout the country nearly every day through Dec. 23.
Since Koz began his solo career over 30 years ago, he has released seven holiday albums, most recently 2019’s Gifts of the Season. In this exclusive interview, Koz talks about interpreting Christmas classics as a jazz musician, playing the fan-favorite Hanukkah medley, and more.
360°: How’s the tour going so far?
Dave Koz: It’s an unusual holiday season for obvious reasons but also a very beautiful holiday season. The audiences that we’ve met so far have really come to the show with kind of a different feeling. It feels really magical and very open-hearted. I guess because what we’ve all been through for the last 18 months, this holiday season is a chance for all of us to reconnect in person. We didn’t do a holiday show last year in person, so this is really a special thing.
This is our 24th year of doing it, so people who come to this show it’s become an annual tradition. We’ve seen guests bring their kids, and their kids get grown up and bring their kids. I think this year especially we’re really reminded of what’s really important in life.
What can people expect from this year’s tour?
I’m very fortunate on this tour because I get to hang out with not just my best friends in music but my best friends period. [Guitarist and vocalist] Jonathan Butler has been with us for 12 years. [Trumpeter] Rick Braun, one of my great friends, and, for the first time, [saxophonist] Richard Elliot. [Elliot] has never played Christmas music before now. Hearing his sound on these melodies is just so right. We also are featuring a wonderful young singer Rebecca Jade, who joins Jonathan on so many songs and has songs of her own.
It’s a really beautiful collaborative spirit, very much based on the spirit of friendship. There is a lot of new material that we’re doing this year, but there’s a lot of real hits from the past. We throw in a Hanukkah medley. And you get Jonathan Butler singing “O Holy Night,” which people will ask for their money back if he doesn’t do [laughs]. It’s a nice mix of old and new.
When you started your solo career, did you think Christmas music would be such a big part of it?
Not in a million years [laughs]. First of all, I’m Jewish, there’s a real disconnect. I grew up loving Christmas music because I used to go to my friends’ houses. We never had a tree or anything growing up. We celebrated Hanukkah, which was great. But I love the whole tradition that surrounds the Christmas holidays. And the music is such a huge part of it.
The message of the holidays is in the music and so all these songs, especially being a saxophonist, they’re such great pieces of music, so much meat on the bones. If you want to play melodies, this is great repertoire to play. Each song has much emotional resonance as well. They’re not just notes, they’re not just songs, they’re big parts of people’s lives. They represent times in our lives, memories, and wonderful people who have come in and out of our lives. Getting a chance to play them is fulfilling as an artist.
The whole idea for this tour came about when I was interviewing David Benoit, the piano player, for a radio show. This was almost 25 years ago. He had just lost his mom and I had just lost my dad. Both very suddenly. We were just kind of commiserating on this call. He came up with the idea. He said, ‘What do you say we go out and do some Christmas shows this year? Make some music for our parents.’ I said, ‘Great idea.’ That was in 1997. That was our first year, and it worked. We probably did six or seven shows that year, people wanted us back, and here we are 24 years later still doing it.
Are there some Christmas songs that lend themselves particularly well to jazz interpretations? And do you think any Christmas song can be played as a jazz tune?
I do. In this show, Richard Elliot plays a solo version of “Silent Night” that is absolutely riveting. He has the audience eating out of the palm of his hands. These songs, the melodies are so good, and they’re melodies that everybody knows, and everybody feels on some level. I think that is what an instrumentalist, whether you play piano or guitar or saxophone, whatever it is, you’re looking for a way to connect the dots with the music without having to sing the lyric.
Because these songs are so well known and so ingrained in our spirits, they touch on those emotional chords that bring out that emotion in people in ways that you don’t have to sing them to get the same thing to happen. In terms of interpretation, these are songs that can be pushed and pulled in a lot of directions, and they always hold up.
Do you have a favorite Christmas song?
My 100% favorite Christmas song is “White Christmas.” There’s something about that melody that just touches my heart. It’s very sweet but it just has this emotion that I love playing with and bringing to the stage every night. I sit on the stool, close my eyes, and I can think about anybody. I can think about my parents, I can think about my childhood, I can think about the exact moment than I’m in. It’s just one of those things that that melody transports me to another place. I never get tired of it.
Tell us a little about the Hanukkah medley and your considerations when choosing the songs to include.
Well, there’s not much to choose from, first of all [laughs]. The Hanukkah repertoire pales in comparison to the Christmas repertoire. You’ve got the Adam Sandler song and a couple of others. We do our best. But I think it’s important to represent the Hanukkah holiday.
There’s only a few Jewish people celebrating in the audience every night. The funny thing about our Hanukkah medley is if we didn’t do it, people would be very upset. Even non-Jews really love that Hanukkah medley. This year, what’s really nice is another one of our cast members, Richard Elliot, is Jewish. There’s a really fun moment in that medley where he comes out and plays along with me and we’re both dressed up in wacky outfits. It’s just pure fun. That’s what we love about it.
Dave Koz And Friends Christmas Tour 2021
11/26 – Atlanta, GA – Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center
11/27 – Clearwater, FL – Ruth Eckerd Hall
11/28 – Naples, FL – Hayes Hall at Artis
11/30 – Sarasota, FL – Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
12/1 – Fort Lauderdale, FL – AuRene Theatre at Broward Center for the Performing Arts
12/2 – Jacksonville, FL – Florida Theatre
12/3 – North Charleston, SC – North Charleston Performing Arts Center
12/4 – Newport News, VA – Ferguson Center for the Arts
12/5 – Brookville, NY – Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
12/6 – Detroit, MI – Motor City Casino Sound Board
12/8 – Cleveland, OH – Connor Palace Theatre at Playhouse Square
12/9 – Columbus, OH – Palace Theatre
12/10 – Hammond, IN – The Venue at Horseshoe Casino
12/11 – Carmel, IN – The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts
12/12 – Louisville, KY – Brown Theatre
12/14 – El Paso, TX – The Plaza Theatre
12/15 – Mesa, AZ – Ikeda Theatre at Mesa Arts Center
12/17 – Cerritos, CA – Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts
12/18 – Cerritos, CA – Cerritos Center For The Performing Arts
12/19 – Palm Desert, CA – McCallum Theatre
12/20 – San Diego, CA – Balboa Theatre
12/21 – Modesto, CA – Mary Stuart Rogers Theater at Gallo Center for the Arts
12/22 – Santa Rosa, CA – Ruth Finley Person Theater at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
12/23 – San Jose, CA – San Jose Civic