This is the first of a two-part interview with saxophonist Dave Koz and guitarist Cory Wong.
360°Sound caught up with contemporary jazz saxophonist Dave Koz and funk guitarist Cory Wong over a Zoom chat earlier this week. Koz and Wong’s new collaborative album The Golden Hour is out now. In this exclusive interview, the Grammy-nominated musicians talk about the interesting start to their collaboration, their songwriting process, big band funk, and more.
Cory Wong: I was hip to Dave just because Dave is in the zeitgeist. Dave is just around. He’s known as one of the sax guys in the world. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy has his own cruise that sells out years in advance?’ There’s gotta be something cool going on with this guy. I want in on that. So, I pestered Dave through my fans. At my live shows, I’d say there’s this guy I found who’s got his own cruise. We’re not smooth jazz, but I’m gonna see if we can fool him via social media into thinking we’re smooth jazz. We’re going to play 32 bars of something that sounds like smooth jazz. Everybody, get it on your phone, tag Dave Koz, and he’ll think we’re the biggest, hottest young act in smooth jazz and he’ll have no choice but to hire us for his cruise.
As it turns out, it got Dave’s attention. We had some mutual friends who said, ‘Cory’s not a psychopath. He’s legit. You guys would actually have a lot of fun together.’ We met and hung out and hit it off. He invited me on the cruise. We had a blast. He said, ‘I’m working on a couple projects for the 30th anniversary of my first album. One of the projects I want to be with people I’ve worked with in the past and am familiar with, making an album how I normally do. For the other project, I want to do something new with people I haven’t collaborated with before.
Dave said, ‘How about we do an album, and you produce it?’ Absolutely, but let’s do it all live in the room. I love Dave’s albums, but they hit in a different way than his live show. Dave’s live show has such an energy to it and such a lifeforce that doesn’t get captured in the same way on his albums. I thought, how cool would it be to capture the Dave Koz live energy on an album? We did it live in the studio. Not every sax player can pull it off, but I knew that Dave could because we had done other sessions in a similar way. You set Dave up and say, ‘Go,’ and he can deliver every time. I knew this approach to the album was going to be a really fun way to capture something that his fans maybe haven’t gotten from studio albums. And my fans would love seeing the collaboration and seeing the worlds connect in a different way.
Dave Koz: Even though it was a nefarious plan that seemed to work, masquerading as a smooth jazz artist, not only with all the videos and all his fans accosting me on social media, but I saw something there that was really amazing. Cory and I started to play together. I popped up at a few of his shows and he invited me to do the same thing with Vulfpeck. I saw something extremely powerful and exciting, which was instrumental music that was appealing to twenty-year-olds. That’s not something I’ve been able to witness in my lifetime in this country. The smooth jazz audience is an older audience. Here is a guitar player playing instrumental music for younger people.
At this phase of my life, after doing this for so many years, I like to refer to myself as an infiltrator, trying to tap into different worlds and learn from them. The Cory experience has been the biggest shot in the arm for me when I needed something that was a game-changer. To continue to just do the same thing over and over, there’s very little, if any, excitement in that for me. This was a really wonderful opportunity that just came together. [Cory was] like a godsend that came out of nowhere. In the beginning, I was like, ‘Who is this person? And why is he bothering me?’ In the end, it’s been the biggest gift.
I understand the songs came together pretty quickly. Do you both find that you are able to write faster, or are perhaps more inspired when you have a collaborator?
Koz: My writing technique is very different from Cory’s. I love to collaborate. I enjoy the process very much. Sometimes you get good results and sometimes you go home at the end of the day with nothing. The thing I love about him is he said at the beginning of the writing sessions, ‘Don’t think about it.’ Let’s just write a bunch of shit and not think about it. Let’s get it out of us and then we’ll evaluate it later and see if there’s anything good there. That was the first time I’ve ever done that [laughs]. Usually, I bring my head into it a lot while I’m writing. He really brought out a different side of me in those writing sessions, to not judge anything before it was time to judge it, which was way later. It was very freeing actually.
Wong: It sounds like we’re just using our instincts and going free with it, and it goes really fast, which it does. I wanted to go with trusting our instincts and each other’s instincts on things. Along the way, there was a lot of filtering processes that don’t necessarily get accounted for. We knew we were going into a writing session, and we knew we both had ideas in our phones as voice memos or videos of song ideas or melody ideas. We both go through our day, and we make voice memos. We chose which ones we think are sticky and we make voice memos of those, that’s filter No. 1.
Filter No. 2 is we go through those ideas and delete the ones that don’t hold up after a couple months of sitting in our phone. Or we’re gonna get together and do a writing session. Let’s write 10 tunes this weekend. Send me 15-20 ideas and I’ll send you 15-20 ideas and we’ll see what we like of each other’s. Then there’s another filter process of, ‘Is this good enough to send to somebody else?’ That’s filter No. 3.
The next filter Dave sends me his 20 ideas and I get to say, ‘I love these five. Let’s work on these five.’ And he says, ‘Oh, I love these five of yours.’ That’s another filtration process. So, we take those ideas, and we sit down and get our instruments out and we start demoing things up. We’ll start with an idea of mine and Dave says, ‘Oh, I hear it going here.’ And I say, ‘Ok cool, I hear it going there also.’ And then we can go here with it and here with it.
We lay it all out, and we listen back. Oh, the flow is nice but what if we tried this in here? Add a couple bars of simmer in this section. Even though we’re relying on our instincts the whole way in the session, there’s actually a lot of filtration going into that. These are some ideas that feel magnetic to each other, and feel like they would represent myself and Dave as artists for a collaborative project. And then along the way of the producing and the arranging, now that we’re all playing it in a room together, let’s try this. So, we’re using our instincts, not taking too much time to overthink things, and trusting each other’s judgement.
One of my favorite songs on the record is “Getaway Car,” a driving funk song that recalls Tower of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire. Tell us a little bit about how the song came together.
Wong: If I remember right, this was one of Dave’s voice memos. He said, ‘I love that stuff you guys do with the Fearless Flyers. I have this riff that feels like this Fearless Flyers sort of thing. I said, OK, let’s develop it and keep working it out. It was that [hums riff], and I said, ‘On the fourth phrase, let’s do a little walk down and go from D minor to B Minor 7th flat 5.’ And then we were like, ‘It needs a bridge.’ Go to G Minor and add some other interesting chord changes, maybe a happier bridge, go to the B flat. Then, [Dave] said, ‘I hear this melody over it, and he started playing the melody over it. I was thinking the melody was cool as a sax thing, but what if it all of a sudden became a whole horn section, almost like funk big band? We would throw ideas back and forth at each other.
Koz: We wrote all this music in Minneapolis. I came here from Los Angeles. We were talking about [jazz-fusion group] Madhouse and saxophonist Eric Leeds, a protégé of Prince. I always loved this particular track, funky as hell. It basically was the same thing, a great bass line, and a real simple but super-funky saxophone riff. I got inspired by the Minneapolis funk vibe. It’s very palpable, so when you’re there, that’s what you want to do. We were with Michael Nelson, who’s an incredible horn arranger and worked with Prince forever, so that was at least the impetus for that song.