Dave Koz & Friends Christmas Tour
Music Center at Strathmore
5301 Tuckerman Lane
North Bethesda, Md.
Tuesday at 8 p.m.
VIP tickets with meet-and-greet available at davekoz.com
General tickets: $38-85
Jazz saxophonist Dave Koz delights in the irony of having a fifth Christmas album out this fall (“The 25th of December”) and his wildly popular holiday tour now in its 17th year — quite a turn of events for the self-described “nice little gay Jewish boy.”
Touring this year with Christopher Cross and soul diva Maysa, the “2014 Dave Koz and Friends Christmas Tour,” kicked off on Black Friday in Sarasota, Fla. We talked to him by phone this week from his hotel room in West Palm Beach, Fla. — it took him a few seconds to remember which city he was in — for a spirited chat on his music, life off the road and musical camaraderie with Richard Marx, Johnny Mathis and more. His comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: So far so good on the tour?
DAVE KOZ: This is the first year where I’ve walked off the first night with no notes, nothing to say, no changes at all. … We’ve done it three nights now and it’s been going over gangbusters. I’m so proud of the show. … With all the crazy stuff in the world right now, it’s a lot of positivity coming at you.
BLADE: Do you feel an added spring in your step with this year’s show since there’s the new album too?
KOZ: I do because it gives us an opportunity to bring in a lot of new music. The album, “25th of December,” was a true joy to make. The producer, Rickey Minor, has a long resume of great artists he’s worked with and this was my first-ever true duets album. It’s really a vocal album with very little instrumental music, so this was an opportunity to bring a lot of that music into the show.
BLADE: So Christopher Cross and Maysa, your guests for the tour, are singing some of the songs that others sang on the album?
KOZ: Yes, that’s basically how we do it. Christopher is also doing some of his hits and a few from his own Christmas album … and Maysa, who’s just a powerhouse diva like a young Aretha Franklin, she does a lot of the heavy lifting singing stuff like “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which Gloria Estefan sang on the album and the Fantasia medley and “Grown-Up Christmas List” and more.
BLADE: You toured with Richard Marx many years ago in his band and now have him on your new album. Had you stayed in touch all along or did you recently get reacquainted with him?
KOZ: We sort of lost touch for quite a number of years. I sent him a note when his father passed. I think that was the impetus for us getting back in touch. Then he moved to L.A. maybe a year and a half ago and we started hanging out more, meeting up, talking about the music business and so on. It’s fun. … Even though we’re about the same age, he’s one of the first bosses I ever had. He’s an extremely talented, very heartfelt guy. Very smart. I’ve learned a lot from him.
BLADE: When and where was the album recorded and about how long did it take to make?
KOZ: In Hollywood at Rickey Minor’s studio, the Red Lotus, over about a six-week period starting the first week of June. That’s the great irony of making Christmas albums, at least in L.A. — they’re usually made in the dead of summer but we kept it nice and chilly in the studio.
BLADE: I know not everyone did their vocals live with you but several did. How did you get so many guest artists’ schedules coordinated?
KOZ: That’s really the genius of working with Rickey Minor. He’s one of those guys who can have a ton of different things going on at one time and somehow keep it all together. We made a good team. We’d be smiling and dialing and asking with one hand and recording whomever was there and had said yes with the other hand. … I really got lucky. There are so many people I love and respect here — Kenny G and I did a duet for the first time, Stevie Wonder — I can’t believe he’s even on this album — Johnny Mathis, Richard, Eric Benet, BeBe Winans, India Arie, Trombone Shorty. It was so much fun to make. There was only one person who said no and it was just because of her schedule.
KOZ: Jennifer Hudson. She had a new album out of her own and a lot going on.
BLADE: Johnny Mathis seems pretty low key on gay stuff. Did the two of you compare any gay notes or anything like that?
KOZ: Oh yeah, all the time actually. The way he has dealt with that is the way he deals with his life in general. I don’t think he places any great importance on it. I mean, of course it’s important to him and the fact that he is an older gentleman and acknowledged it in a way many established iconic stars wouldn’t do, says a lot about the kind of human being he is. But the fact that he didn’t make so much of it, that he just sort of did it and moved on, is very much like who he is. He’s a very happy-go-lucky, very transparent person. Very pure and very light. Almost like a little elf. He’s very effervescent. …He’s a massive star, yet there’s no ego. Just this beautiful person and I respect him in so many ways.
BLADE: Christmas songs can be tricky. Like covers or standards, you want them to sound fresh, not like the same old thing everybody’s heard 9,000 times, yet twist that melody around too much and people can get alienated real fast. Do you agree with that notion? If so, how do you find that sweet spot where it sounds fresh yet not too different?
KOZ: Oh, that’s something I’m constantly thinking of and with a lot of the songs we recorded, there are quintessential recordings out there that you could never compete with. … Christmas music is like comfort food for people — they want what they know and if they hear a song they don’t know, they think, “OK, I don’t know this — I’m tuning out.” So it’s very hard to introduce new Christmas music and put some energy into some of these classics yet not change them so much that it becomes blasphemy. And believe me, I’ve heard plenty of albums where it was like, “What? Why would you ever do that?”
BLADE: In your genre, is there a gulf or any tension between what might work great on AC radio or on an album but might be too mellow or low-key to work on stage? Your show has a lot more energy and passion than people may realize.
KOZ: There’s a lot of freedom but one thing we did on this album, and about eight songs from it are in the show, is that we recorded it all live in studio with the musicians all there together in one room, so it’s very easy to translate this album to a live situation. But yeah, there are times where we’ll try something out live that just doesn’t seem to work and we just say, “OK — maybe another year.”
BLADE: Did you ever think starting out that your musical persona would be so heavily dominated by Christmas music or was it just something that developed over time?
KOZ: No, I never saw that coming. I grew up loving Christmas. My family only celebrated Hanukkah but I used to love to slip away on Christmas Eve to my best friend’s house and trim the tree, listen to music and eat ham with them. I loved it. So in that respect, it’s not surprising. … But it is nice, as I said, with all the shit going on in the world, to put some positivity out there and we work our asses off doing it. We’re doing 23 shows in 26 days.
BLADE: You live in Los Angeles when you’re not traveling. Do you have a gay social life there? Do you ever hang out in West Hollywood?
KOZ: That’s not really my scene although I enjoy it once in a while, especially when out-of-town friends visit. But I travel so much, when I’m home I just like to chill a little bit. But yeah, I have an active friend circle there.
BLADE: Last time we chatted you were single. Still?
KOZ: Yes, but it kind of works for me. I still have a lot of fun and meet a lot of wonderful people and there’s no shortage of love in my life, but I don’t feel that anything’s missing. If it happened, I would embrace it though.
BLADE: What do you do on Christmas Day when the tour’s over?
KOZ: Sleep. I’m a big sleeper when I’m home. But this year we’re also working on something very exciting that’s been years in the making. We’re opening a new place called Spaghettini & the Dave Koz Lounge in Beverly Hills right on Canon Drive on new restaurant row. It will be fine dining then turn into a headliner music venue after dinner. I’m playing there New Year’s Eve.
BLADE: Just for fun, what’s the gayest thing on your iPod?
KOZ: Probably the “Smash” soundtrack.
BLADE: Does touring this time of year take the fun out of Christmas for you?
KOZ: No. I love it because I get a chance to celebrate Christmas every night with all these wonderful people who get dressed and come out. … and for the longest time, my family has always gotten together after the holidays to celebrate. We’re the only family who celebrates Hanukkah in January. It’s great. The presents are cheaper then.
BLADE: What would make your Christmas memorable this year?
KOZ: I hate to sound cliche but it really shocks me how much intolerance is still tolerated in this country. … All this stuff we’ve seen in Ferguson, it’s just craziness. So many race problems happening that in 2014, I would have hoped we’d have had a better handle on by now. It’s a big problem and it’s reared its ugly head again. My hope is that we can start to deal with those things and move beyond them with more forward momentum in the new year.