Dave Koz’s Bummer of the Summer

“Strange. The longer I play the smaller this saxophone gets.”

The idea of a quartet of top smooth jazz saxophonists gathering for a super-session must have seemed like a great idea to Dave Koz. Why not invite Gerald Albright, Mindi Abair and Richard Elliot to join him for a sax summit? Hang out, play some together, have some laughs. It’ll be fun. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit actually. The biggest problem with Summer Horns is it suffers from the mistaken assumption that if some is good, then more must be better. But more isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more than what is necessary and that is why Summer Horns doesn’t work.

There will be a some folks mad at Koz about this album. Namely, every smooth jazz saxophonist who wasn’t invited to play.
Yet even swapping out Koz, Albright, Abair and Elliot for Euge Groove, Eric Darius, Walter Beasley and Jessy J., probably doesn’t change much. The songs would probably stay pretty much the same as the horn arrangements by Greg Adams, Tom Scott, Gordon Goodwin, Marco Basci and Albright achieve competency without ever being impressive.

Discerning fans will notice the songs chosen for the album are crossover jazz (Ronnie Laws’ “Always There” and “Rise” by Herb Alpert), rock and soul bands that featured horns, (Chicago, Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Stevie Wonder) and a few standards for good measure.

The all-covers concept may have been driven by the desire to dress up familiar favorites in new technology or maybe it was a matter of the various artists not having the time to compose and learn all-new, original material. Since there is a follow-up tour scheduled what’s more likely to please a crowd: a bunch of new and unfamiliar tunes or moldy oldies they know by heart?

There is a vague whiff of calculation to this approach because even though Koz, Abair, Albright and Elliot’s interpretations pale in comparison to the originals the chance to see all four sharing the one stage will be an irresistible hook for both promoters and concertgoers.

As a Doobie Brother and as a solo act Michael McDonald was the epitome of blue-eyed soul, but that was a long time ago. Tower of Power’s “So Very Hard to Go” sinks as McDonald strains for the soul that used to come easily. Jeffrey Osbourne is a veteran crooner who does a little better with “God Bless the Child” but not much better. He doesn’t have much of an affinity for Billie Holiday’s definitive classic and Koz and company fare little better.

More successful and Jonathan Butler and Osbourne’s backing vocals for “Hot Fun In the Summertime” and if there weren’t enough horns already Brian Culbertson drops in to add a trombone solo. The horns-and-bass version of “Take Five” is sincere in its wish to pay respects to Dave Brubeck, but hasn’t Paul Desmond’s classic been overdone by now? A persistent criticism leveled at smooth jazz artists is they take the path of least resistance and here the charge sticks.

The lone original moment comes at the end with “Summer Horns” but by then it’s only a teaser of what this grand collaboration might have been if Koz and company hadn’t chosen to play things both straight and safe.

The urgency to please instead of intrigue the listener is what makes Summer Horns a frustrating affair. It’s akin to a summer blockbuster movie with a star-studded cast, eye-popping special effects that kills an hour or two and leaves no lasting, long-term impression. The talent of the stars is undisputed, but nobody seems on the verge of breaking a sweat.

This is an album that will sell big, but aims small.

This review originally appeared at All About Jazz.

This part didn’t.

There was more I wanted to say about Dave Koz and Friends and the Summer Horns album that I could not say in the All About Jazz review.   Here on my personal blog I say what I want.

And what I want to say is how much I could not stand this record.

I like smooth jazz, but boy, does it wear me out trying to defend it from those who call it unlistenable pabulum.   It’s not, but albums like Summer Horns are impossible to defend.   Everything  you hate about smooth jazz is here in big heaping helping of different ways to SUCK.

How much sax is too much sax?

I find what a lot musicians are doing  to be completely uninteresting to my ears and jazz is certainly no exception.  Nothing bugs me more than guys like  Koz  whom seem capable of more, but settle on uninspired and unachieving crap like his  Summer Horns project which relies on a gimmick of pulling together four smooth jazz sax players, going through the motions on some lame cover version of someone else’s hit songs and then just noodle until it sells like crazy (or what passes for crazy in an age where nobody buys albums anymore).

It’s a sin and a shame to make music this dull.   It’s not a crime, but it should be.   This is not the worst album I’ve heard from a major act in ten years of reviewing recordings, but it could be the most lethargic.   Playing loud and piling on some lame solos doesn’t mean you’re kicking ass.   Simply calling Summer Horns a “bad” album doesn’t get close to summing up my feelings.  Bad is the wrong word.  Dreary is the word.  This is the kind of record that people who love jazz hate with a passion because it isn’t jazz.   It’s instrumental music.    Which ain’t necessarily jazz.

Too many musicians learn a trick and then they repeat that trick if it proves to be successful.   “They liked that one so I’ll give them another one just like it.”   This is a trap and artists big and small have walked into it.  I know this to be true.  Jazz is too much of a limited niche market for anybody to deliberately make lousy music and I truly believe  nobody makes a bad album on purpose.

But lazy, half-ass, going through the motions albums that nothing but product like a bad of McDonald’s fries?   Yes.  That absolutely happens all the time.

My father always said bad music will drive out good.   He wasn’t  entirely right about that.  Boring music  drives out both.

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2 responses

  1. I agree with Koz when he said that 4 solo artist shouldn’t work. I disagree that it did work. The studio album sounded bland and soulless. I think my brother in law may be correct when he thought it may be a better experience live. The energy would be different and the sound richer. The live cut sounded better than the album, but not that much better.

    1. Well, one thing about catching The Summer Horns live is you would probably be spared the pain of Michael McDonald croaking his way through “So Very Hard To Go.” That’s GOT to be a good thing.

      But I still wouldn’t want to see them playing this bland-ass bullshit live any more than I enjoyed listening to it in my home. There’s got to be someone playing something far more interesting than this crowd-pleasing calculated crap. :evil:

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