A Conversation with Dave Koz
Mike Ragogna: Hello, Dave.
Dave Koz: Hello there to you, Mike. Nice to talk to you, and wow--solar-powered radio.
MR: And we're the only station in the Midwest doing it.
DK: And you got clear to the end of the song. It must be a sunny day in Iowa.
MR: That's right! We'd be okay with clouds too though, bring 'em.
DK: The sun does go through the clouds. The last time I checked, the sun was pretty powerful.
MR: What's really great about it is that it's the only one in the Midwest, but we don't really want to be able to claim that. We want everybody to be using solar power soon, especially in places like Southern California where you are, right?
DK: Well, I'm in New York City, right now. I'm spending the month in New York, which is kind of new to me because I am definitely a California boy. I was born and raised in Southern California in a suburb of Los Angeles, but I finished this album and decided to spend the month getting a little dose of new energy and new surroundings. It's kind of like a little sabbatical, if you will. New York City is a place that I've always loved, but I've never really been here for more than a couple of days at a time. The energy of this city is unbelievable. All you have to do is walk out your front door in the morning and the city unfolds in the most miraculous, surprising ways all day and all night long, so I'm having a great time.
MR: That's beautiful. I grew up in New York and I miss it a lot. I miss L.A. too because I just came from L.A. before I left for Iowa, but nothing is really like New York. A lot of people I remember in the past used to give me grief because they thought I got a bad deal growing up in New York. But you you know what? There's The New York Public Library, Central Park, Lincoln Center, tons of museums, Madison Square Garden and the stadiums, all sorts of things for kids, you know? Not too shabby a lifestyle for a kid.
DK: I went to The Museum of Natural History for the first time a couple of days ago and I spent four hours there. It was fascinating. You could go and explore the city for every day of the year and not even scratch the surface because there is so much to see here. So, I've been enjoying my time here, seeing some friends, seeing some shows, eating a lot, drinking a lot--I shouldn't say this too much in the midst of an interview, but I think I've pretty much drank my weight in alcohol since I've been here a week.
MR: Shame on you but also continue to have a good time, sir!
MR: Are you hitting any of the delis?
DK: Well, I haven't been to Carnegie Deli, that's my favorite. But there's this place on the lower East Side that somebody told me I had to try called Katz's, so I'm going to do that.
MR: Oh my God, the best deli in New York City as far as I'm concerned.
DK: You don't have to worry about me eating. I have been doing just fine here, but if you'd like to check in with me weekly, I can tell you what my weight is. This is a city to enjoy the food.
MR: That would be great. We could do a weekly Dave Koz check-up until your new album Hello Tomorrow comes out. Guess we should talk about that now, huh.
DK: I'm very excited about this project. I'll be honest with you, Mike. We kind of worked together in the past at EMI, but this is a new record company for me after twenty years of making records with Capitol, which I loved and enjoyed. This is the first record I've made for a new company in my career, it's for Concord Music, which is the largest independent record label out there and really filled with people who truly care and are excited about music at a time when it's very difficult to be excited about the music business, since there have been so many changes. I really did not want to make another record just because I could, especially now. Why make another record when I've got eleven albums, you know? I've got tons of music out there. So, I kind of was grappling with that, and finally it hit me--the little bit of a concept that embodies the unfamiliar time that we're living in right now--and it became very clear to me that I could make an album that reflected on that, and it wouldn't be just another Dave Koz album, but hopefully, music that matters. That's what Hello Tomorrow is--it's a reflection on these times of great, unprecedented change. I know I went through it in my own life, and this album really helped me embrace the change that was going on, rampant in every aspect of my life. I came out on the other side having gotten comfortable with the discomfort of change. Change can be tough, and all the pillars that we've rested on for so many years--I've talked to a lot of people about this--all those pillars have changed. You could be of a certain age, you've done everything right in your life, and you get to this point and it's completely different than what you expected your life to be. So, a lot of people are dealing with this discomfort in a lot of ways. I found the best way to deal with it was to embrace it and find inspiration in it, and through the working of this album, that's exactly what happened. So, hopefully, when people listen to it, a little of that will rub off, and perhaps a piece of the puzzle will be found for folks who are going through similar things.
MR: Let me ask you something about "This Guy's In Love With You" because I was lucky enough to work with Herb Albert on his Greatest Hits collection. That whole experience was just amazing to me, and it was great to see you on a track together. Can you tell the story behind that recording?
DK: Well, "This Guy's In Love With You" has been a song that's been special to me for many, many years, which came out in the late '60s. Herb Albert is an artist who is very special to me, not only for his musical contributions, but for being a philanthropist. This is not widely known, but he is second only to Oprah in the amount of philanthropic endeavors he has undertaken as a human being. He's given away millions upon millions of dollars. He's an artist, he's a sculptor, he's a musician, he's a very faithful and wonderful husband, and he's just one of these guys that I've always looked to as a guy that's figured it out. He would never say that, but I can look at him and say, "There's a guy that's figured it out." So, this song that he made famous, ironically, since he's a trumpet player, he sang. I'm not a singer, and I don't play the trumpet either, but I play the saxophone. The song feels like it could have a new life and a new poignancy for right now based on the concept of Hello Tomorrow.
Specifically, I'm gay, so this is a time period, right now, where we're right there in the trenches with marriage equality. When I heard this song again--I heard it on the radio and listened to it with new ears--it felt almost like an anthem for marriage equality. Beautiful, poignant, sweet reflection on the purity of love. Who you love is your birthright, and we should all have that in our lives. So, I was encouraged to sing it by my producers, Marcus Miller and John Burk. I sang it, but I wanted to get Herb Albert's blessing because I know him, so I thought it would be nice for him to at least hear it and give us his blessing on how we're reworking this song that he made famous. So, we sent it over, he called me back and said, "Look, I love what you're doing with it, I applaud you for it, I think it's fantastic, and not only do I give you my blessing, but I'd also love to play on this track." So, that was full circle, a Hello Tomorrow moment--taking something from the past and reworking it to be a comment on the times that we're living in today. To have his vote of confidence, both in spirit and in horn, really was a dream come true for all of us involved.
MR: That's really a sweet story. By the way, here in Iowa--at least until the old republican governor gets re-elected which it looks like he will--we do have marriage equality.
DK: Yes you do. You should be very proud of that.
MR: It's great that Iowans put it together.
DK: Well, we're talking about expressions of love here. So, you can politicize it, you can have debates, you can prolong the debates, but in the end, love always--not to be pie in the sky--love will always win out. It's a process, and I'm very understanding of the process, but I'm happy that we're in it and this is the equal rights argument of our time, right now. There's no doubt in my mind that we will have a federal marriage act that will be inclusive of gay marriage, for sure. It's just a matter of when. It's on the side of history.
MR: Recently, I interviewed Brian Culbertson for HuffPost. Nice guy. How did you come to work together?
DK: Brian and I have been friends for a long time, and we're collaborators. We've been on the road together many times. In fact, he's going to be joining me for our 13th Annual Christmas tour this Fall, that kicks off Thanksgiving weekend and runs through Christmas. So, Brian and I are great friends and we've written a lot of music together. We just started working on the Hello Tomorrow project, and in that particular case, songs just came. I'm not used to that because I'm usually the guy who's rolling up his sleeves and revisiting songs time and time again. But with Brian, we just hit a stride. I would go over to his studio and say, "Culbie, I have one hour. Let's see what we can come up with." And in an hour we'd not only write a song, but we would get a quick little demo, and I would take these demos to my producers. I would think, "How good could it be if we wrote and recorded it in one hour," but they'd look at me and say, "That's really good." Finally, the producers said, "Wait, stop, we've got way too much material here. We're going to have to start eliminating songs." So, in the end, five of the songs that Brian Culbertson and I wrote together made the album. Both of us felt kind of silly about it, like how are these coming to us, and are they really that good, you know? But that really was what this album was about. I've never felt quite as much in the flow of things as I have on this album. In fact, I look at the album now and I scratch my head thinking, "Where did this come from?" In the purest way, I feel like I wasn't even there for it. It just sort of came through me instead of coming out of me if that makes any sense.
MR: Oh no, that makes a lot of sense. A lot of artists feel like their best work comes when they let go and it just comes through them, as you said.
DK: Well, I think that happened more on this project than it has ever happened in my life. A lot of musicians, the best musicians in the world, live in the studio, and that music felt like it was very natural. It felt like it was music that came from me, so I think people that have enjoyed my music in the past will enjoy this. But there was a lot of significant newness to it and pushing the envelope forward so as to not only inspire me, but to take the audience to a new place as well. That's really a comment on how to deal with all the change that's going on. I was put in my discomfort zone so many times on this record, and by the end of the process, I felt great comfort there, which was ironic.
MR: Well, it's all about "hello tomorrow," right?
DK: Hello tomorrow. It's about embracing, and it's about trying to find some inspiration through the chaos because we're all experiencing a certain level of chaos in our lives right now. I don't care where you live or what you do, these are unprecedented times of great monumental change, and so many people are just kind of asleep, like that's the easiest way to deal with it--just kind of be idle. Hopefully, this album, at least it was for me, is an experience of great awakening, healing, and transformation. If it can be a piece of the puzzle for people who are listening to it on their own path of enlightenment, then that's great. Not to be all spiritual or anything, but that's really what music is. Music has this property that's unlike the written word, unlike art, and unlike theater. Music is this beautiful thing from above--however you want to talk about the power larger than us. It has an ability to stir the soul in a way that is different from any other art, and that's why music, even though the music business is in great flux, will never go out of style.
MR: But don't you feel like maybe the flux in the music business has happened, at least partly, because of exactly the opposite of what you just talked about? Hasn't the industry gone so marketing heavy that it's really taken for granted what is special about music?
DK: Maybe. I think that might be a part of it. Certainly, you can look at the output of music in the last several years and see that it's maybe not quite as high as in other decades, but the music business was kind of the first to be susceptible to the digital era. So, the mode of how the business ran was changed right out from underneath them. Now, if music people had sort of taken their heads out of the sand and said, "Okay, this is happening anyway. We might as well jump on the bandwagon and figure out how we can be a part of this," as opposed to digging their heels in and saying, "We're not going to do that," then we might have a different music business today. But the way it all played out, in the end, it was perfect and it was exactly what needed to happen. I think we're finding that people are now making music not because it's easy to sell a record, but because of the creativity. The creative aspect of the art making is slowly notching up. So, I think as a result of all the changes, the music quality is increasing and that's a great thing. It's more of a thing that everybody can be involved with, and it's a much more democratic kind of business as opposed to just the elite being involved.
MR: Well, it was forced to embrace the really smart indies and all the artists that have gone the DIY route.
DK: I think it's a good time for the music business, I really do--at least in my genre of music which is instrumental music. Jazz and instrumental music is such a little corner of the music world and such a small niche, but I've seen it happen where artists are digging deeper and they're not just making a record because it's time to make a record. If they have the opportunity to go in and record, they're looking inside themselves to say, "Well, what do I want to say here? What do I want to contribute?" The Hello Tomorrow album comes out, to the week, twenty years after my first album came out. So, I've already had a career that is in the top one percent of the people who try it, and I feel so blessed and so fortunate. I've been able to make a good living, travel the world, do shows and concerts, and meet so many people that this is all gravy for me right now. It's turned into, rather than just an attempt to keep the gravy train going, a question of how I can use my gift to best serve right now. How can I use the music to inspire people, enlighten people, and also keep me fresh and excited about finding these new creative wells that I can live in for a while. So, it's an interesting psychological change of approach for me. It's more about what I can do to help others.
MR: That's a beautiful approach, integrating music with being a human being.
DK: Well, as I mentioned before, that's what the unique property of music is. It's funny too because it can stir and awaken people on a level they're not even aware of. It's so pervasive, it's around us everywhere. It's like water--it can kind of sneak into crevices and you don't even know it's there--it's just got this property that it can go everywhere and sneak in, and I think music is that way too. When you walk into a restaurant, you may not even notice it, but it's adding or taking away often. Sometimes, you walk into a place where you think the horrible music is too loud and you may not even know that it's the music that is making you feel uncomfortable. It's a very powerful medium.
MR: You had a relationship with the former Concord executive Hal Gaba. He was an influence, I guess, along with bassist Wayman Tisdale on a particular song, "What You Leave Behind," the album's closer. Can you go into that story?
DK: Well, I'm a songwriter, and like everybody, sometimes you think, "Could this really be good?" Like I mentioned before, it's that internal judge that you have in your head. But there was melody that kept, in a way, knocking on my head from the inside, and every day, I would wake up with this melody in my head and I would sort of ignore it because I was doing other things, working on other songs and their development. One day, I was like, "Okay, I'll put this down." So, I went to my studio downstairs--I have a very simple studio--and I put a keyboard patch down then played some saxophone on top of it, and it was a very short little song. I listened to it back and the title came to me immediately when I listened to it, and that title was "What You Leave Behind." I was kind of overcome by this sudden wave of emotion. It wasn't overly sad, but it was just a poignant moment that took my breath away a little bit. Then, I realized who that song was for and why it had kept knocking on my head from the inside until I finally got it out. It was just about a month beforehand that I had lost two big mentors in my life. One, as you mentioned, was Hal Gaba, who was the chairman of Concord Records, a very dear friend of mine, larger than life, a beautiful person, always did the right thing, and just a beloved figure in music; and the other one was Wayman Tisdale, who was a former NBA All-Star who turned into a great bass player. He was a great friend of mine, I spent a lot of time on the road with him, and both of these men had lost their battles with cancer and passed away within six weeks or two months of each other, and within a month of me writing this song. I listened to the song and I realized "What You Leave Behind" was what was going to be for them because both of them did just that--they were the epitome of what we all try to do in our lives. We're living our lifetime, of course, making the most of it as we possibly can, connecting as much as we possibly can, and hopefully, when it's our time to leave, during our brief stay here, what we have done in our lifetimes lives beyond our bodies. These two were just stunning examples of that, and that's why I wanted to end the record with that sentiment, in honor of those two people.
MR: Dave, the song "Start All Over Again" ties right into the whole concept of Hello Tomorrow.
DK: That song was written by a good friend of mine named Dana Glover, who is a fantastic songwriter and singer. I heard it about five years ago, and songs have this timing thing attached to them--the song is still great, no matter when you hear it, but they have to find the right project and the right connective tissue for it to really make sense and matter. I was on a trip to Japan last November and I had my iTunes on shuffle when all of a sudden came this song--the demo of "Start All Over Again" which Dana had played for me about five years prior. I listened to it and I had been looking for this concept to kind of hang my hat on when I heard the chorus, and a specific line in the chorus was "hello tomorrow." Beautiful song, very much the kind of message, even though it's not necessarily a new message, that bears significance right now in these very unfamiliar times. I just loved it. So, I got off the plane and I went immediately to my hotel to email Dana and said, "Whatever happened to this song? Did anybody cut it, have you used it?" Nobody had cut it--timing--now is the time for this song. So, we worked on the arrangement together, my producers loved it, and she ended up singing it. As I like to say, it's kind of like the tree trunk of this album and all the other songs are the branches that come out from that place. It's really the cornerstone of what Hello Tomorrow, as an album, is all about. I'm proud to say, by the way, that it caught the attention of the producers of a show called Desperate Housewives, and on the October 24th episode of Desperate Housewives this year, "Start All Over Again" will be prominently featured in the episode. Dana is in it and so am I. We actually play the song on TV. So, it's pretty cool to have that be part of our launch.
MR: Now, I'm not going to ask you for any spoilers, but are you a part of the plot in any major way?
DK: Well, Dana is part of the plot. She plays one of the housewives that lives down the street and had a fledgling music career that she put on hold so she could raise her family; then, one day, she's around the table with her family and she just loses it and says, "You know what? I'm tired of this." She screams to her husband, "I'm getting my band together and I'm getting my charts made, and we're going to rent a cabaret and you're going to pay for it!" The husband, who didn't know this was coming, is sort of sitting there, shell-shocked, and then that's exactly what happens. There's a cabaret scene where she plays this song, and the other members of the cast are there to cheer her on as one of the housewives of Wisteria Lane. I'm in the band. I play the saxophone as one of this particular housewife's musicians. So, I don't have an actual speaking role, I just play the sax player which I'm kind of used to doing.
MR: How do you contain yourself after being on Desperate Housewives? That's great.
DK: You know it's funny, when you talk about ways to get your music out there these days, television has become the new radio, in many ways, for people to be turned onto music. I'm proud to say that the only place where you can find this song is on this album, Hello Tomorrow. I know there will be people who become unsuspecting fans of this song because it's that kind of piece of music if you're at a certain place in your life, where you're kind of scratching your head saying, "Wow, this is really not what I expected or where I expected to be." There's always this element, and sometimes, you need a little kick in the you-know-what to realize that life is like a canvas. You can always white it out and start over. As long as you're breathing, you can start all over again, and that's what this song is about.
MR: That's beautiful. Should everybody be watching out for you on tour?
DK: That's right. We are going to be doing our Dave Koz And Friends--Smooth Jazz Christmas, our thirteenth time doing this tour, and we will be all over the United States. I would recommend that your readers just head to my website for full tour details, and that website is www.davekoz.com. Come by for a visit, and if we're near you, come by for a show and spend the holidays with us. Mike, thank you very much for the interview. It's great talking to you, and great sharing stories. I appreciate your support and your interest for all these years.
MR: I appreciate your friendship too. Thank you very much for and all the best with what I feel is one of your best albums--other than At The Movies because I'm a little prejudiced about it.
DK: Thank you very much. Continued success, my friend.
1. Put The Top Down
2. When Will I Know For Sure
3. It's Always Been You
5. This Guy's In Love With You
6. Anything's Possible
7. There's A Better Way
8. Start All Over Again
9. Think Big
10. The Journey
11. Remember Where You Come From
12. Whisper In Your Ear
13. What You Leave Behind
(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)
PLUS, HERE'S KT TUNSTALL'S VIDEO EXCLUSIVE PT. 3...