Smooth Talker: Dave Koz on Cory Wong, Dave Grohl, and the future of smooth jazz
(This is the second part of 360°Sound’s two-part exclusive interview with saxophonist Dave Koz.)
In the second part of our discussion with Dave Koz, the contemporary jazz star talks about his collaboration with guitarist and Vulfpeck associate Cory Wong, the future of smooth jazz, and what it’s like being Dave Grohl’s godfather. Koz’s 20th studio album, A New Day, comes out Friday, October 9.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: When I interviewed one of your collaborators, singer/trombonist Aubrey Logan, she talked about your knack for getting the most out of your collaborations. What are the components of a great collaboration?
Dave Koz: I think all of the parties have to agree to a safe space, where ideas are not shut down immediately and people can feel comfortable sharing who they are and their feelings about whatever it is you’re working on creatively. If you look at your musicality as a circle and the person that you’re collaborating with as another circle, there’s an overlap, and in that overlap, where the two circles go on top of each other, there’s a potential for magic to happen, and I’m just seeing it over and over. But both those circles have to be willing to merge. That’s sometimes not an easy thing for a lot of people. If I didn’t collaborate and I was left to my own devices, I’d just keep churning out the same stuff.
I always love being able to come up with collaborators that really stretch me. I just finished another album that I recorded in Minnesota with a guy named Cory Wong. Cory is one of those collaborators that has really pushed me to discover a different side of my musicality. We wrote a bunch of material before the pandemic. Actually, it was really supposed to be a companion to A New Day, like two EPs, that was the original concept. But with the pandemic, I couldn’t get to Minnesota to do it, even though all the music was written. We finally made it happen right after Labor Day in the studio with an amazing group of musicians. That will come out next year sometime, but I cannot wait on that one because it just sounds so different from everything I’ve ever done before.
I’m grateful to Cory that he saw something in me that intrigued him. I know he helped unearth another aspect of my musicality that would have remained dormant had he not kind of pushed me. I think these kinds of collaborations are essential to keeping one’s creativity relevant, especially for somebody like me, I’ve been doing this for a very long time. We have to remain relevant to keep going, otherwise, we might as well hang the hat up and do something different.
Do you find that your work with Wong has helped you reach some listeners who otherwise wouldn’t have sought out your music?
100%. And some of the work I’ve done because of Cory with Vulfpeck, too, which has been such an incredible shot in the arm for me to see these young people playing jazz in front of kids in their 20s. I was a guest on the [Vulfpeck] Madison Square Garden show and 15,000 young people were just gettin’ off on jazz. It was unbelievable. Vulfpeck, Cory, there’s a bunch of other young artists now that are really bringing jazz to the forefront for young audiences. And it’s not over the top, over your head, kind of music. It tends to be very funky, very melodic. I can’t believe that it’s getting this kind of worldwide global young audience, which is a really great thing for the music. Music is not generational in the end. If it’s music that appeals to a young audience, it’s music that can appeal to an old audience and everybody in between.
Who are some artists you’d love to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?
There’s a lot of young people and a lot of people that are heritage artists that I feel like, ‘Oh God, wouldn’t it be wonderful?’ I also have to say that I’ve had a chance to collaborate with many of my heroes whether it’s Stevie Wonder, who played and sang on one of my Christmas records, Celine Dion, Stevie Nicks, Rod Stewart, I played on all his Great American Songbook records. For me, ideally, it’s the people who have been around for a very long time and really continue to push their own boundaries. Bruce Springsteen would be a dream come true to be able to blow a little saxophone. I knew Clarence Clemons very well. His nephew who took that spot is doing a great job, so I’d never wanna take anybody’s gig.
Billy Joel is another hero of mine. Elton John is a huge hero of mine. Then there are these young guys like Masego. He’s an internet guy who is really talented and very experimental. There’s this group called Surfaces, which is made up of these two surfer dudes, twentysomethings, that are making this really interesting mix of music. Kind of like it’s reggae or calypso but there’s a lot of jazz influences in it as well.
I have my eyes and ears open to everything right now. I look at this stage of my life as an infiltrator [laughs]. Identifying people who are doing really cool shit and say, ‘How do I get involved with them?’ And usually they don’t wanna have anything to do with me, because I’m not exactly Mr. Cool. But I suppose with a few more of the Cory Wong collaborations and Vulfpeck collaborations, I may be able to open some of those doors up if people are willing to take pity on an old saxophone player.
You are Dave Grohl’s godfather and you even played on the last Foo Fighters album Concrete and Gold. Please tell us a little bit about your relationship with Grohl.
With Dave [Grohl], what you see is what you get. I’m not that much older than him. He’s 51 and I’m 57, but I consider him a kid, primarily because he’s my godson [laughs]. I don’t have enough time to talk about Dave and what an incredible human being he is. Away from the fact that he’s a rock god and a complete music legend, he’s one of the kindest, most present people I’ve ever met. I’ve learned volumes from him.
How I became his godfather is kind of a long and funny story. This is probably about 15 years ago when we made that official. He and his wife Jordyn were pregnant. Jordyn’s cousin is one of my best friends, so we were hanging out a lot. She was like, ‘We need to pick out a godfather.’ Dave was like, ‘I never grew up with a godfather. What does a godfather do?’ I told him and he listened and went away. About an hour later he came back to me and said, ‘I spoke with Jordyn. We’re not gonna have godparents for our kids. But I don’t have a godfather, so what do ya think?’ I could tell he was sort of joking. This is a relationship that we both have to take seriously. If we do this, we’re connected to each other’s lives for the rest of our lives. That means you gotta come to my shit, and I gotta go to your shit, and support each other and remember each other’s birthdays and call each other. He looked in my eyes and I looked in his and we decided we were gonna do it, and from that day forward, it was a relationship.
It finally happened when he called and said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time you appeared on a Foo Fighters record?’ ‘Dude, I’ve been waiting for this call for like 15 years.’ I’ve done a lot of recording sessions in my life. But I will tell ya, it was EastWest [Studios] in Hollywood and they were all there, the entire band, and Greg Kurstin was producing. I brought all my saxophones. We did a bunch of overdubs and it was probably one of the most exciting musical days of my life because I’m a huge fan of that band and I love all the guys in it. This is the first saxophone overdub on a Foo Fighters record, and they were just like geeking. They were freaking out about it. They made me feel so good about it.
Jazz Times ran an article, in which you were quoted, entitled “Is Smooth Jazz Dead?” It discussed the decline of smooth jazz radio stations and record sales. How do you feel about the current state and future of the genre?
We had a pretty darn good run of smooth jazz radio that blanketed the country for a lot of years. I think most artists would agree with me on this where the format was actually curating the music, as opposed to the music curating the format. It kind of got researched and manipulated too much where everything started to sound the same. So, I think over the last many years, I’ve seen a lot more artists kind of forget the format and just make great instrumental music. I think that’s given a lot more energy to this world of instrumental music.
I’m a big advocate for the role of instrumental music in people’s everyday listening habits. All music fans, not just jazz fans, can have a slice of their listening habits on instrumental music, because it really does paint a different picture. In fact, it’s a completely blank canvas because you’re not locked in with words. I’ve heard a lot of instrumental music that’s not jazz that is really great, whether it’s chill or rock or R&B instrumentals. There’s a lot of really vital music that’s being made right now. I think [contemporary jazz] is a healthy subgenre, and I think it’s growing. With more of these bands popping up that are doing largely instrumental music and getting big audiences to listen, I think it’s only going to help.