GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations: Dave Koz

55th GRAMMY-nominated saxophonist discusses five GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that shaped his musical journey
  • Photo: Rebecca Sapp/
    Dave Koz
February 09, 2013 -- 6:00 pm PST
By Steve Hochman /

(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)

Dave Koz has been thinking a lot about the records that shaped him recently. The saxophone player, one of the biggest stars of smooth jazz for more than two decades, is at work on a project that brings back a lot of memories.

With his 2012 album, Live At The Blue Note Tokyo, nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Album GRAMMY, bringing his career nominations total to eight, Koz has teamed with three sax stars for an upcoming album, Summer Horns, set for release this summer.

"I've had this idea in my head all these years," Koz says. "It's with three other saxophone players who have the same passions — Gerald Albright, Richard Elliot and Mindi Abair. We're doing an album of all those songs that could not exist without the horn section: [songs by] Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago, [and] Blood, Sweat & Tears. We've been having a blast, and we'll be doing a Summer Horns tour."

When Koz sat down to make a list of the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that provided his biggest inspirations — on a plane back to his Los Angeles home from Minneapolis, as it turned out — it was very easy for him to go right back in his head to the suburban Tarzana, Calif., childhood room where his music passions took shape. 

"Midnight Train To Georgia"
Gladys Knight And The Pips
Buddha (1973)
R&B (Single)
Inducted 1999 

"This was the first one, the first single, I ever bought and remember playing on my rinky-dink record player in my bedroom. You always remember the first record you bought with your own money. 

There was something about the alchemy of that record; something about the way the track felt and the song. But her vocal! Still, today, I have spirited conversations with singer friends about the ultimate top 10, and Gladys Knight, as far as a soulful singer, is still at the top for me. Maybe because that was one of the first voices I really heard, and then later in life getting to meet her and know her a little more — not just a young kid listening in my bedroom, but doing some shows with her — she still is to this day one of the great communicators through song.

I grew up in Tarzana. I was born in '63 and this song was [released in] 1973, right around the time I was starting to wake up, musically. I think I started playing saxophone in '75, going into seventh grade. That was a very specific change of what music I wanted to listen to. That's when I discovered Tower Of Power, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago — all the horn bands."

Steely Dan
ABC (1977)
Pop (Album)
Inducted 2003 

"My brother still is a Steely Dan freak. When I was growing up musically and picked up the saxophone, their use of horns and sax, specifically as a solo instrument, was so musical and interesting. Aja has some of the great sax solos of all time. Tom Scott, one of my mentors, is on it and did arrangements for this album. Steely Dan was making music that, I don't know how they did this, will forever sound fresh."

Talking Book
Stevie Wonder
Tamla (1972)
R&B (Album)
Inducted 1999 

"The songwriting, delivery — it's all incredibly funky. This was one of my first albums. Of course it was incredibly popular at the time. And great horns, great horn parts — funky, really amazing compositions. He's got a lot of music in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame, so it was difficult to pick, but this was the first [album] I bought of his.

"I listen to music first; lyrics are almost a distant second. My filter is with melody and music, but the lyrics on [both this and Steely Dan's Aja] were delivered in such a musically palpable [way]. But they are great compositions that you could take the vocals away, play it on a saxophone or other instrument, and they're still great compositions. That's the biggest funnel for me, because I'm not a singer. So most of the music I chose is melodically really, really strong."

That's The Way Of The World
Earth, Wind & Fire
Columbia (1975)
R&B (Album)
Inducted 2004 

"Earth, Wind & Fire was the first concert I went to, at the Forum [in Inglewood, Calif.]. And not only the first concert, but the first time I saw spandex, Afros and a couple of explosions on stage — at the same time. I had to pinch myself.

"I did a gig for Yamaha a few weeks ago and Earth, Wind & Fire was on it. I know a couple of the guys and have to pinch myself that [they] know my name, know who I am, come up and say, 'Hi.' I worshipped that band!" 

"Just The Way You Are"
Billy Joel
Columbia (1978)
Pop (Single)
Inducted 2004 

"I remember 'Just The Way You Are' was [released] around the time I was playing a lot. I joined my brother's band, playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. That song was popular, and you had to play the sax solo. That was Phil Woods [on the recording that was] produced by Phil Ramone, who produced one of my albums. He always brought in people from the jazz world to create these mini-masterpieces inside a pop song.

"I told Phil Ramone that in my formative years, if I was playing a bar mitzvah or wedding and that song came up, I had to play the iconic solo, note for note. I said, 'That must have been something you really worked out.' He said, 'No, [it was] just something [Woods] came in and played.' It was the same with Tom Scott on his [recordings] with Joni Mitchell or Paul McCartney. [They were] first takes — just warming up, and that's the take."

(Dave Koz is currently nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Album for Live At The Blue Note Tokyo. He was nominated in the same category in 2011 for Hello Tomorrow.)

(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)

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