Since the 1980’s Dave Koz has been one of the most successful commercial saxophone players in the world.
With 19 albums and a bunch of Grammy nominations, Dave has been a powerhouse in the industry not only as a player, but also a syndicated radio DJ, philanthropist and entrepreneur.
Somehow between his radio show, his latest album launch, organising his sellout Dave Koz and Friends Jazz Cruises and everything else, I managed to grab a few minutes to chat with this legend of the music business.
N: Tell me a bit about how your first got started with the saxophone?
D: Going back to the very beginning I first picked up the sax when I was 13 years old and in the 7th grade. I started mainly because my brother had a band that was doing weddings, fraternity parties, bar mitzvahs, that kind of stuff, and I just wanted to be in that band, more than anything else.
One day my brother let it slip that the only way I could get into the band was if I played the sax because they didn’t have a saxophone player. I took that as my cue!
Sax wasn’t my first instrument, I’d played piano and drums before and completely sucked at both! So it wasn’t like I had a lot going into it that would suggest I would be successful. But sax was the first instrument that felt quite natural in my hands, and it was a wonderful experience to have that.
I got good at it pretty quickly and then I started playing in my brother’s band! He was about 4 years older than me, and so was everyone else in the band, so it was a quick way of immersive ear training. I was playing with people who were much better than me so that pushed me to get better quickly.
N: I’ve been a fan of your albums for a long time but I’m amazed at all the other projects you’re involved with too. You’re a busy guy!
D: Yes! I guess I must have a short attention span or something! I have a lot of respect for people who are just big practisers and are constantly working on their craft, but I’ve just never really approached music as a technician. I admire it so much in others and I used to think there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have the desire to do that. I did practice hard though in those formative stages.
What really fascinates me and pushes my buttons though is the mechanism of how it all works. The marketing of music, and the business side of it, the creative side, plus coming up with new ideas and working out how to bring music to people. For me that is the most creative and interesting.
N: Not many musicians manage to bring both the creative side and the business side together. Maybe it’s something to do with how the brain works!
D: I can understand it, maybe it’s a stereotype: the creative person and the business person as two separate people that are operating on opposite ends of the spectrum. But the more that we move forward in the music world now, the more those worlds have collided. Artists have to think about marketing their music now more than ever. Very few of us have Svengalis, big music companies that can push the buttons and make things happen. We have to make things happen ourselves. And that’s where the real creativity comes.
N: And you’ve been great at that for a really long time, building a massive audience for everything you do, through the radio, and through the cruises, and the touring as well. You’re nurturing that audience all the time. I love the videos that you do online too!
D: At the end of the day it’s all about connecting with people – it is for me, anyhow. I want music to connect with people on a heart level of some sort. I’ve seen first hand how music can open doors to people’s lives and hearts and make things better. It’s a very powerful medium and I’ve seen it so many times.
Music is like water, it can creep into places, it can get inside of us and go to the places where nurturing is needed most. The whole thing is about how do we do that for more people and make a bigger impact while we’re here.
N: When you were younger and you were starting out, who was your inspiration from a saxophone point of view? Who was the first player that really lit your fire?
D: In those early days in would have been Lenny Pickett from Tower of Power. That was the first album that I ever bought – Back to Oakland by Tower of Power. I just remember hearing that horn section and his solos that just completely slayed me.
Then later on it was all about Tom Scott and David Sanborn and Grover Washington Jnr. I listened to a lot of the heritage saxophone players too, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley. I listened to all of it and I practised all of it.
David Sanborn is a sax god to me, and to a whole legion of other musicians! I worshipped him as a kid. Actually, he’s not that much older than me and now he’s a good friend of mine. I was over at his house a couple of months ago in New York and I had to pinch myself – I was sitting across from this guy who I had literally worshipped growing up. And now we’re contemporaries of a sort although I would never really claim that I’m a contemporary of his!
Dave is a guy who is technically so proficient but he always plays in a melodic style. It’s the same with Tom Scott. Those guys were not only playing their own music, but they would appear on many other people’s records. It didn’t matter whether it was Joni Mitchell or Steely Dan or Michael Franks or James Taylor – and these guys weren’t jazz musicians or pop musicians, they were just melody driven soloists. Every time they played something it couldn’t have been more perfect. And that was what influenced me and took me on a path – those guys that played very melodically.
N: All those players, David Sanborn, Tom Scott, and Grover Washington Jnr too, are also so good at connecting emotionally with the music. Do you think this is something that helped them reach a bigger audience?
D: I think those two go hand in hand. If the playing is more technical, more envelope-pushing soloing, there comes a point where it goes over people’s heads and it doesn’t connect on an emotional level because it’s too complicated for the average person to listen to. That’s never been the way I’ve approached music, it’s just not who I am so I can’t even try to do it.
I did a recording session a couple of weeks ago for a guy called Harry Shearer for a Christmas album. There was a spoof song called “Too Many Notes”, and he said “I need you to play a crazy, wild solo” and I said “I can try!”. I just don’t think that way. I think he got something that he liked enough, but it’s never been me to do too much of that stuff.
N: Hey but you’re not short of technique! I was listening to your album “Live at the Blue Note Tokyo” – I really like that album and there’s some blistering playing on there!
D: Thank you! I don’t think we did any fixes on that – we mixed it, but what you heard was what happened. We did a week there, and we had ten shows to choose from, so we picked the best performances.
N: So back when you were young and you heard that Lenny Pickett album, what did you do? Did you try to emulate his playing? What inspired you most about it?
D: The funky aspect of it – he was as much a rhythm section artist as he was a soloist. Just the way he played and phrased was so in the pocket. So of course I tried to emulate it.
I remember meeting David Sanborn backstage at one of his shows when I was back in high school – I happened to meet him before his show and I was a nervous wreck! I was barely able to get out one question, and I said to him “how do I get to sound just like you? I want to sound just like you!”
“Be the best ‘you’ you can do”
It was such a typical thing for a kid to say, I might have been 17 or 18. And what he said has stayed with me this whole time – he said “there already is me – I’m still alive and I hope to be playing for a number more years, so you can’t be me – there’s a me already!
So, what you can do, is to be you! Be the best you “you” can do.” That was a great piece of advice that has stayed with me all along. That’s the amazing thing about the saxophone, if you took the same equipment – saxophone, mouthpiece, reed – and lined up David [Sanborn] and Gerald Albright, Tom Scott, Eric Darius, Boney James, anybody! The same saxophone and the same equipment would sound completely different in everybody’s hands.
It’s the physiology of our bodies, our approach, our lung capacity, our lips – everything – it’s all a part of the sound. That is a really interesting lesson to learn – that the equipment is just a vehicle for the sound to come through. The sound is actually emanating from the human being that’s playing it.
N: And I guess you’re also a combination of all of your influences. I was talking to Nigel Hitchcock the other day and he was saying that Michael Brecker is the only player that he is really into, and I was quite surprised that he was quite obsessively into just that, because he doesn’t really sound like Michael Brecker. You are a combination of everything you are inspired by but I was surprised by how focussed he was.
D: Yes, if you’re going to have just one, it’s a pretty good one to have! I got the chance to meet Michael [Brecker] a couple of times and he was such a generous and sweet man. I don’t think he realised his impact or how much he influenced a whole generation of saxophonists and musicians in general. There was a guy who had monster technique, off the charts, other planets technique. He would trot it out when necessary, but I love the way that he is such a reserved player. It was much like the way that Stan Getz played the tenor saxophone – it was never more than what was needed.
I love that kind of economy. I love that people can do it, that they have the firepower if need be, but usually you don’t need a big fire extinguisher if you are putting out your match.
N: You’re a busy guy, with a lot going on. What sort of things do you practice, for maintenance?
D: I don’t really practice too much to be honest with you! That’s an awful thing to say in an interview! I play a ton, I love to play, I love to pick up the saxophone.
Once or twice a year a friend of mine has these little music nights where we smoke cigars and play music and have a great dinner and amazing wines. I was at one just the other night and we played for hours – that’s the kind of stuff that I love. I’d much rather do that than sit and practise things.
If there’s a piece of music that I have to shed then obviously I do practice. And I spend time finding reeds. That’s always part of the to do list which I don’t really love but is necessary.
I also do a lot of rehearsals for when we put our tours and cruises up – lots of rehearsal! I don’t love rehearsing but I do feel it’s very important. When people have paid money to come and see you, it’s very important to me that the quality is of the highest level. So I want every show to be crisp, high quality and really polished. That’s important to me, and the musicians that work with me for a long period of time know that and everybody comes prepared. It’s also a great benefit of living in Los Angeles where you have the greatest musicians at your fingertips. And some in the UK too!
ALTO SAX: Yamaha silver alto sax YAS-62S (beechler metal mouthpiece, #7)
SOPRANO SAX: Yamaha silver Soprano sax YSS-62S (Couf mouthpiece #8) Conn curved soprano sax (vintage)
TENOR SAX: Selmer Mark 6 Tenor sax (Berg-Larsen hard rubber mouthpiece)
REEDS: RICO PLASTICOVER #3 “I’ve been using Plasitcover reeds for about 30 years! I really like the consistency and the extra ‘buzz’ I get in my sound.
Sometimes I battle with the brightness of them but for the most part I can tame it where I need to. But the consistency is great and, a little bit more consistency is a good thing!
Check out Dave’s website for tour dates and news: www.davekoz.com
Koz Wine – is available from Amazon
Dave Koz and Friends Jazz Cruise (2016 + 2017 sold out) : http://www.davekozcruise.com