Smooth jazz saxophone star Dave Koz says he often wonders how “a nice Jewish boy” like him has become one of the leading keepers of the popular Christmas songbook.
“I’m not sure how this happened but somewhere along the road I got associated with Christmas music,” says Koz, whose Christmas tour on Saturday night stops for the first time at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. “The fact that this has been going on for so long is an incredible shot in my arm. I’m probably more surprised than anybody.”
Koz, 53, has released two bestselling holiday albums, “A Smooth Jazz Christmas” in 2001 and “The 25th of December” two years ago. He began the Christmas concert tours 19 years ago.
“I was raised Jewish but always loved Christmas. Christmas would roll around when I was a kid in California and I would alway go to my friends’ houses to trim the trees and Christmas Eve and the big dinners,” he says. “I also just always loved the music. A lot of the music we all just love to hear every year, these chestnuts, were written by the same people who wrote a large portion of the Great American Songbook. They’re not just songs, they’re really incredible pieces of music that you can push and pull and try new things with.”
Try new things, perhaps, but usually with the popular holiday standards Americans have grown up with.
“It’s funny to me how opposed to new Christmas music we as a culture are,” Koz says. “Every year, there’s always somebody who tries to introduce new Christmas music into their repertoire. And people really just respond to those classic songs like ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Winter Wonderland,’ ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ These songs take people back to their family moments, the things that happened along the way. These songs are like musical guideposts of their lives. And very emotional. They pack a big punch — more than just notes on a page.”
Koz’s holiday albums have featured big-name co-stars, including singers Gloria Estefan and Johnny Mathis, saxophonist Kenny G and pianist David Benoit.
Joining Koz on this year’s concert tour are three vocalists: Jonathan Butler, Valerie Simpson and Kenny Lattimore.
“This tour represents the first time that we’ve had three singers — and I’m talking about three powerhouse singers,” Koz says.
▪ “Jonathan Butler, who’s been with us for at least 10 of the last 19 years — as he refers to me, the brother from another mother. We’re so completely different and yet when we get on stage it’s pure magic. You never know what that guy is going to do and that’s one of the thrills and terrors of it all. He’s so much fun.”
▪ “Kenny Lattimore, one of the great R&B gospel crooners. We did a tour together last summer, but this is his first time doing our Christmas tour. He’s got a brand new holiday album, too, which we’re going to be doing quite a lot of music from.”
▪ “And for the first time, as well, one half of the legendary songwriting and artist group Ashford & Simpson, Valerie Simpson. Valerie — this tour represents the first time that she’s been on the road doing shows since her husband passed away five years ago. It was a huge loss.”
Koz speaks glowingly of Simpson, 70, and their first tour rehearsal together Nov. 17 in Burbank, California:
“She got behind the microphone and piano, and all the songs came out. Our jaws were on the floor. This woman has not lost a bit of her voice, of her talent. She’s just larger than life,” he said. “The songs that she and Nick [Ashford] wrote, they’re not just songs. They’re not just songwriters. I would call her the R&B Carole King, because of her ability to sing, play piano: ‘Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,’ ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ ‘Your Precious Love,’ ‘Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,’ ‘I’m Every Woman.’ I could just go on and on and on.”
The Christmas concert concept allows each performer to perform some non-holiday music, too.
“The show tends to be about 70/30, 70 percent Christmas music and 30 percent from everybody’s catalogs,” Koz says. “If you’re a fan of somebody, you want to see your favorite songs, so we have a couple of moments like that, where we allow our artists to flex those muscles as well.
“What better time than right now, at the holidays, especially after what this country has been through,” says Koz, one of mainstream music’s few out LGBTQ performers. “This music just lifts your spirits. It reminds you, specifically these songs that she and Nick wrote, it harkens back to a much simpler time, a very innocent time fraught with its own issues, like every time period, but my sense is that this music, all the music, the Christmas music we are playing, too, even a Hanukkah segment we have every year, this is music that will hopefully bring peoples’ spirits up and remind them of the things that unite us as opposed to things that divide us.”
If you go
▪ What: Jazz Roots: Dave Koz Christmas Tour 2016 with guests Jonathan Butler, Valerie Simpson and Kenny Lattimore
▪ When: 8 p.m. Saturday
▪ Where: Knight Concert Hall at Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
▪ Tickets: $45 to $150. Purchase at www.arshtcenter.org or 305-949-6722