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Dave Koz and Summer Horns bring jazz collaboration to Smith Center

You’ll forgive Dave Koz if he’s a bit disoriented.

In the recording studio, he’s just finished recording a cut for his latest Christmas album — with Johnny Mathis reprising that perennial holiday favorite, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Mathis “still sounds like a bird when he sings,” Koz says. “It’s like the first time he’s singing it.”)

On stage, however, Koz has his mind on hot fun in the summertime, as the smooth-jazz stalwart and fellow saxophonists Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot reunite as Summer Horns.

Their current tour brings them to The Smith Center on Saturday night — and Koz is only too happy to be back in Reynolds Hall. (He first played there during — you guessed it — one of his popular holiday tours.)

“I love that place,” Koz says before amending his comment. “I LOVE THAT PLACE — in capital letters.”

In a telephone interview, Koz says Reynolds Hall ranks as a state-of-the-art, beautiful-sounding space that rivals any beautiful performance hall in the world.

“It’s so exciting having this space, in the city of Las Vegas, that’s not associated with a hotel,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful houses I’ve ever seen. And it sounds great.”

As for the sounds that he and his fellow Summer Horns members will be making Saturday night, “it’s like twisting on a different head,” Koz says of the shift from holiday recording to summer sounds on stage.

But it’s easy to get his head in the right place, he says, because last year’s Summer Horns recording and tour proved such a pleasure.

As the tour wound down into its final week last year, the mood was “bittersweet,” Koz recalls, because the tour — and the Grammy-nominated album that preceded it proved such a special project.

“We were sad to see it end,” he says.

So Koz “blurted it out,” asking his fellow saxophonists, “ ‘What are you guys doing next summer?’ ”

As Abair acknowledges (during a separate telephone interview), “you never know what you’re going to get yourself into when you’re making a record.”

In the case of “Summer Horns,” it turned out to be “an absolute blast,” she says. “We’ve known each other for many, many years, but I had never worked with them.”

And, in the beginning, “there’s that ‘uh oh, is this going to work?’ ” moment, Abair admits.

“(But) we had so much fun in the studio, (performing) shoulder to shoulder, playing off each other, laughing at our mistakes, cheering each other on.”

Koz came up with the “Summer Horns” concept after many years, calling it an album that had been in his psyche for a long time, emerging from a nugget of an idea he traces to his musical DNA.

After all, the first album he ever bought was Tower of Power’s 1974 “Back to Oakland.”

That record, and other horn-heavy hits from the late ’70s and early ’80s — by everyone from James Brown and Kool and the Gang to Earth, Wind and Fire — impressed him with their tight horn sections at the center of their sound.

Someday, Koz thought, he would make such a recording himself.

Rather than a typical horn section, however, he asked himself, “ ‘What about a sax section?’ ”

And when Koz approached Abair, Albright and Elliot, they all said yes, he recalls.

“We all were similarly turned on by the same bands,” he says. “We were praying this was going to work.”

After recording the album’s first number, Koz adds, “we looked at each other and we were high-fiving.”

Although each member of Summer Horns has a very distinct personality as a player, Abair says, the sound meshed.

“We came together as a group — and sounded tight as a section,” she says. “But we didn’t lose who we were.”

This year’s tour, which Abair estimates is probably 30 percent completely new, finds three of the four sax stars showcasing material from new recordings. (In Abair’s case, it’s the title track from “Wild Heart,” which reflects her recent experience on “American Idol” and collaborations with, among others, Aerosmith.)

Koz says he plans to perform a few songs he hasn’t played live in a while.

And, along with a whole new intro, the four Summer Horns will team up on a medley of different songs they haven’t played before, he says, from Chicago’s “Getaway” (more familiar as the “incredible horn passage” at the end of “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”) to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “In the Stone” — followed by a bit of EWF’s beloved “September.”

But “it’s more than just pieces of music,” Koz says of the tunes. “These are guideposts of our lives, real pivot points” that, “the minute you hear them, they take you back.”

And when the members of Summer Horns perform them, they become a musical relay team, he explains.

“We all meet in the middle,” Koz says. “When it’s time for someone to take a solo, we do the best shake-off we can — and they run with it.”

Among the four Summer Horns, “we counted it up — and there’s over 150 years of saxophone playing,” Abair says. “That’s a lot of years.”

It’s also a welcome opportunity to expand her musical horizons, she says.

“I have become a better saxophonist because of Summer Horns,” Abair says, adding that “it’s such a gift to be a solo artist, night after night, year after year. But the danger is, you don’t get inspired, you don’t get pushed” when you’re “running the show” by yourself.

Without collaboration, Koz says he would have run out of ideas long ago.

“I like being stretched and having my eyes opened,” he says. “(And) being able to collaborate opened my musical eyes and ears.”

Besides, he adds, “It’s fun to be part of a band.”

And by now, this particular band has definitely bonded.

On stage, you’ll see a lot of camaraderie, a lot of jokes, Abair says.

“At this point, we have a really innate sense of each other — and when we’re playing as a section, there really is this beautiful flow,” she says. “That’s when it goes to a different level. You’re inside someone’s head and you float. That’s when the real magic happens — and there’s a ton of magic happening on this tour.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

 

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