(This is the first of a two-part exclusive interview with the smooth jazz icon.)
360°Sound caught up with multi-platinum contemporary jazz artist Dave Koz. The Grammy-nominated saxophonist will hit several milestones with his forthcoming LP A New Day (out Oct. 9). The 11-track album (the CD edition has a bonus track) comes out 30 years after his self-titled debut. It’s also his 20th album and the first of original material in 10 years. A New Day was recorded entirely during the coronavirus pandemic. Koz, 57, who is no stranger to high-profile collaborations, brought in a stacked lineup of heavy hitters, including Brian McKnight, David Sanborn, Jeff Lorber and Bob James.
In this part, Koz discusses standout tracks from A New Day and the challenges that came with recording virtually. In the second part, Koz talks about the future of smooth jazz, his unlikely collaboration with funk guitarist and Vulfpeck associate Cory Wong, and his godson, rock legend Dave Grohl. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Have you taken some time during the pandemic to reflect on your 30-year journey as a solo recording artist?
Dave Koz: It’s been 30 years and I’ve been so grateful to have the career that I’ve been blessed with, but I wasn’t really planning on doing anything to celebrate that milestone. And then the pandemic hit. It was kind of pretty immediate I was thinking, ‘I think I know what I need to do now.’ And that is to take this time where people are kind of freaking out and utilize the music, the calming influence that music can have in very difficult times in one’s life. And that’s really the way I use music, and I think most people do, which is we turn to music to comfort and soothe in times of great strife. It does that in a way that words can’t.
I kind of knew intuitively what I needed to do when the pandemic hit, and that’s when I went to work to figure out how to write songs and record songs in quarantine, which I’d never done before. That was definitely a challenge. Somehow, it really just came together relatively easy. It felt like it was a guided project.
Tell us about the mood and feel you wanted to communicate to listeners with this record in light of the pandemic.
My music over the last many years is kind of always erred on the side of positivity, hopefulness, and coming together. It’s, generally speaking, hopeful music. I felt that that’s what people really needed. That’s what I needed. I needed to be inspired musically to just get out of bed in the morning. What human beings have been forced to experience in the year 2020 is pretty unprecedented. We just haven’t had this amount of shit coming at us at one time. And it’s not just about the pandemic; it’s all the other ancillary things that happened here as a result or as a companion to this crazy year, whether it’s the political stuff or the protests or equal justice and racial issues, it’s just all come at us in this hailstorm of activity.
I think most people are just really, really tired of being pushed and pulled in so many directions in such a short period of time. Music is a chance to kind of disappear from that a little bit and get into a different space. Also, I think it can smooth the journey to where we’re going. I feel like we are going to a better place, and I want to telegraph that with the music that I put out.
What were the challenges that came with recording the album virtually?
I think one of the things that we had going for us this time is that everybody was home. Everybody was idle, sidelined from being out on the road and doing what you normally do. These musicians – whether they were guest artists like David Sanborn, Brian McKnight, Bob James, Jeff Lorber, Paul Jackson Jr., or the incredible studio musicians that we went to – everybody had this sort of pent-up energy because they hadn’t been creating. It’d been quite a number of weeks or even months that they hadn’t been doing what they normally do. There was this musical exuberance, for lack of a better term, that everybody brought to the table.
If we were sending something out for a drum overdub or a bass or guitar overdub, we’d get it back and there would be no direction. There might be like a quick call saying, ‘Here’s what’s going on. Do this. Do that.’ But because my co-producers and I were not able to be there to watch it go down and guide the sessions, we had to rely on the pure musicality of these people. And they did not disappoint. We would get these tracks back and we’d put the faders up and listen to them, and they were filled with extra energy. It’s almost like they had bright lights attached to these overdubs. It just leapt out of the speakers. I think that’s a direct result of people just really wanting to create and not having the outlets to do it.
I think it was a win-win, certainly a win for us and a win for the musicians that they could have something to sink their teeth into. Just on that bass overdub that Meshell Ndegeocello did on “Yesterday,” which is the one cover on the album. Her bass part is a work of art. It’s like you could just have that and nothing else and it would be entertaining because it has so much personality in it. That happened time and time again on this project. Thankfully, people were available and really excited to be a part of it. The result of it, totally ironically, is a pretty cohesive sounding album.
Any tracks that you were especially proud of how they turned out?
The leadoff song, “Summertime in NYC,” I was in New York City to write that song. I remember the day, March 14. I was writing with my longtime collaborators and producers Evan Rogers and Carl Sturken. The world was closing down outside of us. That was a very important day in the pandemic. The NBA canceled its season, Broadway shut its doors, Trump went on from the Oval Office, Tom Hanks and his wife said they were infected with COVID. That was the day, for most Americans, that the reality set in. Like, ‘Holy shit, this is happening.’
We’re writing this song in the studio, which is 100% feel good. We totally just shut our ears. Of course, we have CNN and everything on TV while we’re writing. Instead of going with the feeling outside the studio, inside the studio we were listening to our heroes and trying to write a song that emulated the feel-good vibe of Earth, Wind, and Fire and Bill Withers and all of our favorite bands, and that’s the song that came out.
I think it’s kind of funny that here the world was closing in and inside the studio we were doing something completely different. Then we sent it to Brian McKnight. When we got the track from him, what he did, he just took this thing to whole ‘nother level. Actually, one of the members of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Ralph Johnson, found out that we were doing that, and he said, ‘You gotta send it over, I gotta put my special sauce on that track,’ which he did. It all kind of came together. That’s a very special song for me because of what it stands for on this project.
The other one that turned out to be one of my all-time favorite duets was the song that Bob James and I did called “Long Goodbyes.” Bob is a huge hero to me. The eloquence that he put into that overdub, when he put his piano on there, it was just so beautiful to me, just so heartbreakingly gorgeous. The last one I’ll say was getting the chance to write a song or record a song with my sax idol. The guy who, more than any other saxophone player on the planet, influenced who I am as a musician, and that’s David Sanborn.
While I worshipped the guy growing up and still do, we are colleagues now, although I’d never consider myself an equal with him. I got up the nerve in 2016 to invite him on tour. It was an amazing experience, but we never made a record together. We never did anything together recording live. Here was our opportunity. Because he was in New York and he was quarantining with his wife, he had nobody coming into his house. He’s 75 years old. This was a challenge. But we did it! His wife ended up recording him without any experience and figured out how to do it. Somehow, we were able to not only write a song together, but have it recorded, him in New York and me in Los Angeles. When you listen to it, it’s called “Side By Side,” it does sound like we were side by side in the studio playing off each other.
Stick around for the rest of the story! Click below to read the exciting conclusion, in which we learn that Dave is actually Dave Grohl’s godfather…