Eight-time GRAMMY® nominee Dave Koz remembers a time when the summers lasted forever, and the most popular rock, R&B, soul and funk bands of the day were propelled by high-octane, richly arranged horn sections. Indeed, from the late 1960s through the ‘70s, bands like Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Earth Wind & Fire, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears and other brassy juggernauts of the era ruled the airwaves and opened his young ears to the saxophone's limitless possibilities as a solo instrument as well as a collaborative voice with the trumpet and trombone.
Four decades later, Koz has assembled three of his most talented and trusted colleagues - Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair - to revisit this golden age with new arrangements of classic songs from this period in the history of popular music. Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns, produced by Paul Brown (Al Jarreau, George Benson, June Tabor, Boney James), is a collaborative effort that throws the spotlight on four high-profile saxophonists, and augments the team with several other equally talented musicians and vocalists. Summer Horns, set for release on June 11, 2013, on Concord Records, turns up the heat just in time for the summer tour season.
"The first album I ever bought was Back To Oakland, the 1974 recording by Tower of Power," says Koz. "I've always been fascinated with that sound. There are few things in music that are as exciting as the energy that comes from a really tight horn section. Over the years, that sound has graced some of the greatest records of all time by bands like Sly & the Family Stone, Earth Wind & Fire, and so many others. That's what Gerald, Richard, Mindi and I are recreating on this recording."
In addition to the four-member front line of saxophones, Summer Horns also includes guest appearances by trumpeter/flugelhornist Rick Braun, trombonist Brian Culbertson, and three seasoned vocalists: Michael McDonald, Jeffrey Osborne and Jonathan Butler.
But Summer Horns is just as much about the arrangers as it is about the musicians, says Koz. "We were very lucky to have horn arrangers on this project who wrote charts for a lot of those landmark records that I remember," he says. "That includes Greg Adams, who was the chief horn arranger for Tower of Power during its heyday, and Tom Scott, who is not only a fantastic saxophonist in his own right, but also wrote charts for Michael Jackson, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and so many others. We also had Gordon Goodwin, who is more of a modern-day horn arranger with his own Big Phat Band."
With all of these talented collaborators at Koz's disposal, a dream project like Summer Horns was inevitable. "In the back of my mind somewhere, I always knew that this record was waiting to come out," he says. "It was just a matter of time until the right opportunity came along, and this was it - a chance to honor the great horn bands of the quintessential era of music that gave us so many great songs."
The passion and enthusiasm that Koz demonstrates on all fronts of his diverse career are evident in every note of Summer Horns. The set opens with the upbeat and breezy "Always There," a Ronnie Laws composition that introduces all four saxophone players and gives each plenty of room to establish his or her opening statement. "We chose to do it with a full sax section," says Koz. "It was a way to broaden the song into something more expansive than the original."
The follow up track is a rendition of Lennon and McCartney's "Got To Get You Into My Life" that closely mirrors the arrangement laid down in the hit 1978 cover of the song by Earth Wind & Fire. The sharp ear will catch the four saxophonists swapping licks with each other as well as guitarist Paul Brown and keyboardist Tracy Carter.
Further in, Michael McDonald delivers the vocals on Tower of Power's "So Very Hard To Go" with the soulful signature that has been his trademark for the better part of four decades. This first song to emerge from the sessions was perhaps the most important moment of all in the process of making the record, says Koz. "We were all there in a line - me, and then Mindi, Richard and Gerald," he recalls. "We pressed record, and all of a sudden there was this sound. And if you listen closely, you can really hear the individual sound of each one of us. But as a unit playing together for the every first time, it had a unique sound. And that formed the basis - the elemental component - of what Summer Horns is."
Trombonist Brian Culbertson makes a guest appearance on a lively cover of "Hot Fun in the Summertime," the 1969 hit for Sly & the Family Stone. "I think the trombone is an incredible instrument, and the guy whom I love most whose playing it right now is Brian. Some people know him as a keyboard player, but he absolutely nails this song with an extended trombone solo. He just slays it, and it was so much fun to hear him do it."
The cover of "Take Five," the Paul Desmond jazz composition that eventually became the signature song of piano jazz icon Dave Brubeck, is perhaps the most intriguing track on the entire CD. In a sparse but carefully nuanced arrangement by Gordon Goodwin, the track includes four saxophones operating in seamless tandem, accompanied by nothing more than a single acoustic bass, courtesy of Roberto Vally.
"Gordon Goodwin did an absolutely brilliant job of taking the guts of such a seminal song and bringing it to a new and inspired place," says Koz. "Each of the saxophonists gets to play the melody at one time, but we also had to write the accompaniment for the melody on saxophone. That was a very challenging day in the studio, but the results were worth it."
The cover of "25 Or 6 To 4," one of Chicago's earliest hits, is one of Koz's favorites. "It's such an unusual, yet cool track. As with ‘Take Five,' the challenge for us was to take an iconic song and not just copy it but do an inspired reworking that made sense with the instrumentation at hand. We wanted to push the boundaries a little bit and do things with these songs that would take them to a new place."
Jonathan Butler steps up to the microphone for a funky rendition of Stevie Wonder's "You Haven't Done Nothin'." Although he scats his way through the song without delivering any actual lyrics, the track maintains an infectious vibe, especially when augmented by confident trumpet and flugelhorn solos from Rick Braun. "I like having Jonathan Butler around anytime," says Koz. "His spirit is so big, and his musicality is so vast. Just having him in the room has an enormous impact. It's hard to be in a bad mood when you're around that guy. He just makes you feel good, and I knew I wanted that energy somewhere on this album."
Jeffrey Osborne's vocal contribution comes at the close of the set, with a soulful rendition of "God Bless the Child," arranged in the spirit of the Blood Sweat & Tears version originally recorded in 1968. "Tom Scott wrote the horns on this song," says Koz, "and we primarily did it as an organ-based quartet - organ, guitar, bass and drums, and the horns and Jeffrey. He sang it from start to finish in one take, and that first and only take is what you hear. It's unbelievable. He's just the consummate singer. He'd never sung it before, but to hear that voice with that music just sounded incredible."
While Koz's name may be featured most prominently on the cover of Summer Horns, his friends have found the project equally gratifying. "Musical collaborations have become quite common these days, but never before have I been involved in a project as unique as Summer Horns," says Elliot. "For me, what made this project so special was the blending of four distinct saxophones styles into one unique sound while still maintaining the individuality of each artist. Working with Dave, Mindi and Gerald was truly a pleasure. The combination of focus, commitment, fun and camaraderie made this an experience I will cherish forever."
Albright is already anxious to take the music on the road. "The idea of involving four different styles of playing into one blended unit was very intriguing to me, and the end result was wonderful!" he says. "The care, consideration and creativity employed in this effort was second to none. I'm looking forward to sharing the stage with Dave, Mindi and Richard this summer!"
For Abair, it's all about the pride that comes with collaborating with talented peers. "Imagine standing at a microphone shoulder-to-shoulder with three of your favorite saxophonist every day in the studio," she says. "It was such an inspiring way to make a record, playing off each other and pushing each other to take chances musically. It was amazing to see a record emerge that maintained all of our individuality as players, yet really blended into this cohesive section. I couldn't be prouder of this collaboration with Dave, Gerald and Richard."
In the end, blend and balance are what the project is all about. Whether you're looking for sophisticated musical statements or just some fun grooves for those months when the mercury rises, you'll find it all in the heat of Summer Horns. You'll also find a new original composition - the bonus track "Summer Horns" closes out the collection.
"There are a lot of levels to this album," says Koz. "There's tremendous musicianship, and there's a lot of thought that went into the arrangements. But by the same token, it's primarily meant to make the listener feel good. These are songs of a certain era, and if you are of a certain age, you're going to listen to them and immediately recognize them. It's meant to remind you of a time when that sound was everywhere. This was our chance to honor that era of great horn sections with a big tip of our hat and say ‘thank you' to those who were responsible for it. I hope people feel the reverence that we all have for this music and the great bands that made it."