HomeInterviewsOn Stage: Dave Koz & Friends do the Holidays

On Stage: Dave Koz & Friends do the Holidays

For 26 years running, Dave Koz, saxophone royalty and champion of instrumental music, has assembled super-hero groups of great contemporary jazz musicians to spread holiday cheer. This year’s Dave Koz & Friends Christmas tour came to Detroit’s historic Music Hall as an oasis of warmth and hope at an emotionally-complex time. 360°Sound was there, and I also had the pleasure of speaking to the man prior to the show.

While his holiday review is always a fun and energetic romp through our favorite holiday tunes, you know the world is in a mess when even the ever-positive Koz has to admit that folks are unsettled this holiday season. The positivity, hope and encouragement that he exudes in his performances and in person is born of his awareness and sensitivity to his audience, and the growing anxiety that seems to go along with life on this planet. 

360°Sound: So what’s exciting you about this year’s show?

Dave Koz: The biggest challenge for this year was matching the tone of where we are as a country, because this tour travels all over the country. Our world seems so upside down in so many ways. And this is a show that you want to bring people together and not pit people against each other. It was trying to find that right balance, right tone, without being too melodramatic or too emotional – trying to match the mood, if you will. And I think that we got it. I think we got lucky, because it’s a very specific thing this year. People are very emotional.

How do you open people’s hearts to the spirit of the holidays with what’s going on, domestically and globally?

Well, it’s a really great question. I think music is especially powerful, perhaps more than any other form of communication, because music has this ability to find the nooks and crannies inside of us, in our souls, to nurture us. Even if we don’t know that it’s needed, it has a way of just getting inside there and making us feel better. Instrumental music in particular, because it doesn’t attach you to specific meanings. An instrumental song can mean one thing to me and a completely different thing to you. I like that transparency.

It seems we really do, as the song says, “need a little Christmas now.”

Christmas is Christmas – it’s its own genre. And it’s a very specific type of music. These are more than just songs. They’re really these classic melodies that we want to hear every year. They bring up so much nostalgia, so many memories – some good, some not so good. And I think that’s what you really have to remember. From those early concerts in elementary school, junior high, and high school, to even doing these big concert tours that we’ve been doing for many years now. Christmas is so special. You have to have a tremendous amount of respect for it because it’s such a special holiday. And the music is a huge part of it.

I like your observation that Christmas music is its own genre.

There are so many Christmas songs. We counted them up the other day – there’s 30 different pieces of music in this show. And that’s not even scratching the surface of the available Christmas songs. We just love the nostalgia; we love those old pieces of music. They’re like musical comfort food. In the show, we project the image of Nat King Cole singing “The Christmas Song.” And it’s a palpable hush that comes over the crowd when they see Nat King Cole. It can’t get any more Christmas than that. It just evokes the holiday. It’s powerful.

This time out, Koz has brought along Jonathan Butler on guitar, Marcus Anderson on sax, singer Rebecca Jade, and notably Justin-Lee Schultz, 16-year-old pianist and guitar player. As usual, the musicianship was stellar, with the instrumentalists also adding their voices to the joyful noise.

Tell me about this year’s cast.

It’s a very interesting mix of talents. Jonathan Butler has been a partner in this tour for at least half of the 26 years that we’ve been doing it. So he and I are great musical friends, and great friends offstage as well. We have a great musical kinship, too. We anchor the first part of the show. And then we introduce the audience to these young talents, and each one of them brings so much energy and so much new charisma and excitement. It’s really spectacular to see.

Justin-Lee Schultz is 16 years old, and oh my he is a freak of nature, honestly. He plays piano, guitar, he sings. He even plays saxophone, which he’s only been playing for six months.  I say it in the show, “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to see something that is truly exceptional. You’re going to remember the night that you saw him first.” He comes out there and just wows the crowd. It’s beautiful to see. And it’s especially exciting for me to see such great talent that is coming up through the ranks that’s going to take this music to another whole level.

Young Justin was indeed a revelation on piano and guitar, jazzing it up and also bringing a touch of rock to the proceedings. South Africa-born and U.S.-based, Justin is a true phenom and has recorded with the likes of saxophonist Richard Elliot and pianist Robert Glasper. But the kid finally got under Koz’s skin when he walked out blowing a tenor sax. Koz playfully quipped, “OK, now you’re starting to piss me off.”

Justin wasn’t the only one that wowed the crowd. Jonathan Butler shared some reminiscences of simple holiday seasons in his native South Africa, and cold blew the audience away with his soulful, powerful vocal performances, particularly on “Oh Holy Night.” He is clearly a man of faith and his passion was evident on the more sacred Christmas songs. Marcus Anderson delighted us as much with his feet as with his instruments – this man can really move! And back for her third straight holiday Koz tour, vocalist Rebecca Jade was the very breath of the Christmas spirit.

The rhythm section was once again anchored by drummer Jay Williams and guitarist, music director, and Detroit native Randy Jacobs. This section is the engine and muscle of this ensemble, and Koz features them extensively in the show.

As for new material, Koz has released a lovely version of “Wish Upon a Star.” Don’t miss the charming animated video, featuring the dynamic duo of Koz and his beloved rescue pooch Buddy Boy, created by Finnish animator and storyteller Jones Häkkinen to accompany the recording.

Do you have something new out for this holiday tour?

“When You Wish Upon a Star” is the first single from an EP that’s going to come out in the early part of next year, called Dave Koz Does Disney. It’s a collection of Disney songs that I’ve loved. Like Christmas music, Disney music also brings up so many memories and so many strong emotions for people, because this is stuff that we’ve been listening to since we were kids. So there’s a palpable connection to the melodies. I love doing “When You Wish Upon a Star” in this show. Even though it’s not a Christmas song, and the show is probably 92% Christmas music, I think it’s very apropos to play at a concert at the end of the year. It reminds us that everybody has a child inside that needs nurturing, no matter how old we get, or how jaded we get, or how complex the world is. We have to remember that there’s an innocent child somewhere inside of us. And that’s what this song accesses. 

I think Buddy Boy got his wish, Dave.

You think so? We went to a steak house last night and I took him, but he didn’t get any steak. So he didn’t get his wish granted last night. But there’s always today.

It wouldn’t be too outrageous to refer to Koz as “The King of Christmas,” which is ironic, since the man is Jewish. He always pays tribute to his heritage in his holiday review with a Hanukkah medley. On this night (it was the first night of Hanukkah) the highlight for me was the funkiest version of “Dreidel Song” you’re ever likely to hear.

This year, Detroit’s beautifully renovated Music Hall and its stage looked decidedly less festive. I’m not sure if that was the tour’s decision or the venue, but there was a notable lack of the poinsettias and garland that last year created a kind of holiday-wonderland feel. The show was more earnest and a bit less playful, as the group opted for a heavier dose of sacred holiday tunes. But there was still plenty of room for the secular, and the band left us with their wistful rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Happy holidays to you, Koz & Friends. We’ll definitely see you next year!

Keep up with Koz on tour on davekoz.com

Dave Koz with Chris Bisha (l) and Phil Childers (r)


Learn more about what we're up to at 360°Sound.