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 main problem with Summer Horns is it suffers from the 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 remain pretty much the same as the horn arrangements by Greg Adams, Tom Scott, Gordon Goodwin, Marco Basci and Albright achieve competency without 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 desire to pay respects to Dave Brubeck, but hasn't Paul Desmond's classic been overdone by now? A persistent criticism levelled 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.
Always There; Got To Get You Into My Life; Rise; So Very Hard To Go; Hot Fun In The Summertime; Take Five; 25 Or 6 To 4; Reasons; I Got You(I Feel Good); You Haven't Done Nothin'; God Bless the Child; Summer Horns.
Dave Koz: alto, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone, lead sax (3, 4,7), flute; Mindi Abair: alto and baritone saxophone, lead saxophone (7, 11); Gerald Albright: tenor, alto and baritone saxophone, lead saxophone (9); Richard Elliot: tenor saxophone, lead saxophone (3, 8, 12); Paul Brown: guitar; Ricky Lawson: drums; Greg Adams: flugelhorn, trumpet; Lee Thornberg: flugelhorn, trombone; Jay Gore: guitar: Tracy Carter: Wurlitzer, Hammond B-3 organ, piano; Roberto Valley: bass; Sean Billings: trumpet; Nick Lane: trombone; Jeff Carruthers: keyboards, drum programming, guitar; Khalid Woods: keyboards, synth bass, drum programming, guitar: Marco Basci: keyboards, drum programming, organ; Michael Stever: copyist: Damen Rahn: keyboards, Hammond B-3 organ, synth, drum programming; Frank Selman: guitar; Mel Brown: bass; Rick Braun: flugelhorn, trumpet; Jon Woodhead: guitar; Randy Jacobs: guitar; Michael McDonald: vocals (4); Jonathan Butler: vocals (5, 10); Jeffrey Osbourne: vocals (5, 11); Billy Mondragon, Damon Reel, Eric Mondragon (DW3): backing vocals (5).