This is the second part of a two-part interview with saxophonist Dave Koz and guitarist Cory Wong.
Smooth jazz icon Dave Koz and funk guitarist extraordinaire Cory Wong (Vulfpeck, the Fearless Flyers, Cory and the Wongnotes) took a break from signing CDs of their new album, The Golden Hour, to chat with 360°Sound about their collaboration. Produced by Wong and recorded live-in-studio in Minneapolis, The Golden Hour features Wong’s crack 10-piece band as well as some help from horn arranger Michael B. Nelson, best known for his long partnership with Prince. In this second and final part of our exclusive interview, the Grammy-nominated musicians talk about rearranging Koz’s big hit “Together Again,” the future of the CD, and more.
360°: Cory, I’m interested to know what you learned from Dave when working on this record and how he has influenced you.
Cory Wong: When I first got hip to Dave in a deep way, it was like, This dude has had a cruise for years. This guy has had a 30-year long career doing this, and he’s still crushing it. He’s got such a dedicated fanbase. That was inspiring to me. It’s one thing to do this for five years. I’ve basically been touring for four years. That’s fun, and things have been growing. But I also know I can’t expect to know everything, and I can’t expect to have all the wisdom without all the experience.
To have a friend and collaborator in Dave, who has the wisdom and the experience on all sides of the industry, being a label artist, being an independent artist, being a touring artist, being someone who puts out albums and has a team of people he works with for things, it’s been fun for me to see some of that, how Dave works on the professional side and on the personal side. What things is he paying attention to that others might not be? What things is he really leaning into that other artists maybe haven’t? Hanging out with Dave I’m really learning how to have a long-lasting career.
You have three types of relationships: People that can be mentors or pour wisdom and experience into your life; peers around you that are doing the same thing; and people that you can mentor and pour some of your experience into. Those three types of relationships have been very important in my life and my career. To have Dave be one of those people has been incredible.
Dave, this album is different from your past work. Were you concerned that your longtime fans wouldn’t be on board with it?
Dave Koz: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned. But I’m at a certain point in my career where I can’t keep doing straight down the highway. I’ve thrown a lot of curveballs to my fans over the years, and they’ve stuck with me. This is a core group of people who really enjoy music and enjoy the journey of finding out what else there is. If I feel like I need to scratch a creative itch, they’ll be like, ‘Ok, go ahead and scratch it, we’ll be there for you. We may not love it, per se. But we’ll at least be there for you and give it a chance.’ And that’s all I ask is for people to give it a listen and give it a try.
If they don’t love it, that’s fine, I will go back to making other records. I think, because it’s so alive, there’s an energy — not just me but smooth jazz artists — when you see them live, it’s different from the records. I’ve never made a record that has that energy. We tour every year, lot of dates every year, and people come, thank God. This is giving those people finally a chance to hear something and see something because it’s audio and visual that’s really more a reflection of that energy that happens at a live show. I absolutely love this album. I think if I love it, most (hopefully) will love it too.
Wong: As a Dave Koz fan myself, I thought it would kind of be a shame if Dave never released an album that feels like his live show. The thing I learned on the Dave Koz Cruise is his fans love music, and his fans love good music. They are down to just hear good music. It’s not just exclusive to Dave’s fans, jazz as a whole. And jam-band music. A lot of my fans are jam-band fans, and they love hearing musical exploration and interesting musical things. I knew the die-hard Koz fans had probably seen his show, enjoyed his live show. Give them a reminder of that, but also let’s just commit to making really awesome music and that will just kind of speak for itself. The fact that it’s Dave’s voice on the saxophone, how cool is that?
Dave, there’s a new version of your hit “Together Again” on this record. Talk about what was it like revisiting the tune and your approach to reworking it.
Koz: That was not my idea [laughs]. I’ll tell you how it happened. I was a Cory Wong show at the Bowery Ballroom. I happened to be in New York at the time. Cory said come on down and play a song, so I did and we had some fun. So, I’m leaving the stage after my song and Cory is like, ‘Don’t go!’ He launches into my live version of “Together Again.” I freaked out because he was expecting for me to play it, but I had the alto saxophone for his song I was playing on. I didn’t have the soprano, which is the instrument I use on that song.
I’m like, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to play this song on alto?’ They memorized the arrangement, including the drum-sax trade. It surprised the hell out of me. Somehow, I managed to get through the song on alto saxophone. It’s not pretty, but it always stuck with me because that was the song that connected us in the first place. When he first found out about me, it was a live version of that song that he had found on the internet.
I thought, in a perfect world, it’d be really great if we did a new arrangement of this and had a big horn section. Take that song, which is the genesis of our entire relationship, and bring the song into the present day, so that’s why we did it. When I listen to that version, I’m extremely proud of it because it’s got a whole new energy, that song I’ve played so many times in my life. Like most artists, you have to play your hits. But you get tired, and you want to be able to do new wrinkles with the music. This is like the perfect new wrinkle at just the right time.
I think it’s cool that y’all have been selling signed CDs. What’s your take on the CD in 2021 and its future?
Koz: When I said to Cory that we should make CDs he looked at me like I might as well have said “cassettes” or something. ‘Are you serious?’
Wong: My fan base does not typically buy CDs, but I do get people asking me about it a fair amount. I drive a 2007 Toyota Sienna — I’m down with the CD. I got a six-disc changer in that sucker, I’m high-tech. Let’s lean into it. Dave does CDs, that’s what he normally does with his fans; that’s what his fans are used to. It’s fun for me to mix it up with my fans, to offer a CD. Honestly, I haven’t sold CDs. I think I did a run of 100 once. They’re easier to bring on tour than vinyl [laughs].
Koz: I remember going to the record store and buying an album and listening to it and having to get up and turn it over. I liked the feeling of having it in my hands. That’s never gonna get old for me. We’ve seen the CD market shrink so radically. And even with my fans who’ve been very supportive of that format, the numbers have gone way, way down. I think for that fan who likes the feeling, the tactile thing of holding music in your hand, I think that’s the inspiration behind it. At least give people the option to have it.