Five years ago, after Dave Koz and Friends released Summer Horns—the GRAMMY-nominated album that paid tribute to classic songs featuring killer horn sections—all that the musicians could think about was how much fun they’d just had. They toured behind the album during the summer of 2013, then vowed to spend the following summer doing it all over again.
“The second tour was even better than the first,” says Koz, the world-class saxophonist who piloted the release, which rocketed to No. 1 on Billboard’s Current Contemporary Jazz Albums chart. “We had a total blast and the fans really gravitated toward it.”
There was no question in Koz’s mind that a sequel was in the stars, but getting everyone’s schedules to align was never going to be easy, each participant being a headliner with bookings well into the future. It took a few years but finally, says Koz, through “divine intervention,” a window of time opened up so that everyone could be in the same place at the same time.
Summer Horns II From A To Z, scheduled for release on June 22, 2018 via Concord Records, is the result, a stunning set of 11 more timeless tunes reimagined by Koz (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes), joined by alto saxophonist Gerald Albright and tenor saxophonist Richard Elliot—both returnees from the earlier session—with new additions Rick Braun (trumpet) and Aubrey Logan (trombone and vocals). A crew of ace rhythm players collaborates with the Summer Horns lineup along with a who’s who of arrangers: Tom Scott (who’s worked with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin to Steely Dan), Greg Adams (best known for Tower of Power, but also Santana and Elton John) and GRAMMY-winning arranger Gordon Goodwin. Braun, himself a legend of contemporary jazz, produced the album, with co-production by Koz.
With the creative team in place, the biggest dilemma facing Koz, Braun and the others was which songs to choose—or, rather, how to narrow down an enormous list of contenders. “My original list was in the hundreds,” Koz says. “We’d have good-natured arguments during weekly conference calls. We each pitched songs and then tried to get other people on our team.”
The final track list, 11 in all, is impeccable, to say the least. Opening Summer Horns II From A To Z is a medley of Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1976 smash “Getaway” and the KC and the Sunshine Band dance staple “That’s the Way I Like It.” Next up is “More Today Than Yesterday,” the only Top 20 hit from the Spiral Starecase, from the spring of 1969. “Most people, when they hear that song, think it was by Chicago,” says Koz. “It sounded so much like them.” The Crusaders’ “Keep That Same Old Feeling,” written by that group’s late trombonist Wayne Henderson, is next, with a horn arrangement by Adams (best known for his work with Tower of Power) and Braun.
The fourth track in the sequence gives the album its subtitle, “From A to Z.” It’s another medley, and on paper it seems an improbably marriage: Here, with a horn arrangement by Gordon Goodwin and rhythm arrangement by Goodwin and Braun, are the 1939 Billy Strayhorn standard “Take the ‘A’ Train,” made famous by Duke Ellington, seamlessly intertwining with hip-hop icon Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” Hence the A to Z.
How in the world did this one come about? Says Koz, “Somebody sent me ‘Roc Boys’ and said, ‘Jay-Z’s got this song that’s got a bunch of horns in it.’ I’m a fan but I don’t know that music well. I heard that track and I said, ‘That horn line is so great! We have to utilize it somewhere.’ Originally, it was going to be its own song. But also on the song list was ‘Take the “A” Train.’ Rick Braun said, said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do something so classic and so old and yet modernize it?’ It was [Concord Records president] John Burk, the executive producer of the album, who said, ‘Maybe the two songs could work together. It would be really funny to go from A to Z.’”
This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” a Top 10 hit for Natalie Cole in 1975, is dedicated to the late vocalist, who was a friend of Koz’s. It’s sung on Summer Horns II From A To Z as a duet, by R&B star Kenny Lattimore and the young vocalist Sheléa. “We started to develop this track, which is very uptempo and really fun,” says Koz. “Tom Scott wrote a brilliant horn arrangement. And then we were thinking, maybe we should look for a male singer because anything we’d do with a female vocalist would immediately be compared to Natalie’s version. Tom came up with the idea of doing it as a duet. It’s not an easy song to sing and their vocal performance is a complete tour de force.”
“Before I Let Go,” written by Frankie Beverly of the R&B group Maze, features a lead alto sax solo by Gerald Albright, and is followed by Paul Simon’s pulsing “Late in the Evening,” from the singer-songwriter’s 1980 album One-Trick Pony. Koz remembers being in a restaurant with friends when Simon’s recording came on the house music system. He immediately emailed himself so he wouldn’t forget it when he got home. Braun didn’t even need to hear Koz’s reasoning: “It’s in,” the producer told him. “I don’t care what the others say.”
Playing acoustic guitar on the tune, and singing the lead vocal, is the South African great Jonathan Butler. “He went total South Africa on it,” says Koz. “Now this song has a completely new point of view. It pays homage to the original, but it takes it to a completely new place.”
Summer Horns II From A To Z only grows more intense as it plays on. If you want to make a funky record, you’ve got to have some Stevie Wonder on it, and it doesn’t get much funkier than 1971’s “If You Really Love Me.” Following that track is “Conga,” the 1985 breakthrough hit for Gloria Estefan and her then-band Miami Sound Machine. Aubrey Logan, the 30-year-old singer and trombonist on the album, provides the lead vocal. She received a special surprise while the group was recording the track.
“We got the track together and Aubrey always loved that song and looked up to Gloria as one of her mentors,” Koz says. “It’s got a great arrangement from Tom Scott and a really cool modern rhythm arrangement that Rick did. Gloria is a friend so I said to myself, ‘I have to play this for Gloria.’ I sent it off to her via email and said, ‘I just want you to know we’re doing this Summer Horns record and we did your song and I hope you like it.’ I was just looking for a little musical blessing. She didn’t send back an email; she sent back a track with her singing harmony to Aubrey’s lead vocal! Aubrey’s jaw dropped to the floor.”
Michael Jackson’s Earth Song, with a horn arrangement by Scott and—as is the case with several tracks on the recording, a rhythm arrangement by Chris “Big Dog” Davis—features a lead tenor sax solo by Elliot and lead vocal by Ashling Cole. Summer Horns II From A To Zwraps up with a piece of vintage Americana, “Route 66,” written by Bobby Troup and recorded by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to the Rolling Stones. Logan, who Koz discovered when he saw her performing with the group Postmodern Jukebox, fronts the tune with her trombone and lead vocal. The horn and rhythm arrangement is courtesy of Goodwin, who fronts his own outfit called the Big Phat Band.
Recording Summer Horns II From A To Z, says Koz, was just as much of a treat as the first go-round in 2013. “It reminds me of my youth,” he says of this music. “I grew up playing in jazz bands. That’s how I was educated in music, playing in a saxophone section and playing in a big band, then sometimes doing small group stuff, playing with other horn players. For most horn players, even if you go on to do more solo work, part of your identity is rooted in being in a section and blending with others. How do you do this? How do you play that? All these fine nuances of music are in there somewhere.”
That passion is shared by all of the musicians who took part in the project, and audiences fortunate enough to catch a live Summer Horns show—they’ll be touring this summer—immediately feel the heat too. “With this music, the fans know every song,” says Koz. “And the musicians leave their egos at the door and show up with a commitment to the band. We know that this is not a replacement for our solo careers, that we will resume them eventually, so it’s not like we’re saying bye-bye to that. But people see all the star power on stage—where everybody could do a two-hour show on their own—the five of us with an incredible band, and it’s an event. Then we get addicted to the response from the fans! That’s why we did it again.”