There was a sweet, engaging moment somewhere in the middle of the Dave Koz & Friends’ 2018 Christmas tour stop at Cerritos Center for the Performing arts when the popular saxophonist and all around showman reflected on the fact that this was the 21st Anniversary of this, the most enduring of all contemporary jazz holiday traditions. “How many of you have been to the show all 21 years?” Then he joked, “I don’t even know if I’ve been to all of them!” Fortunately for his fans and the genre where he has found true superstardom as an artist and entrepreneurial force of nature (with annual cruises, long-running syndicated radio show, etc.), he has indeed put together one of the most delightful and eclectic holiday-themed musical shows on the calendar every year since the late 90s.
Whether he’s touring in winter or summer, Koz has always shown a knack for creating a perfectly balanced lineup of his fellow genre vets and sharing fresh arrangements and eclectic set lists that alternate tempos, themes and styles so as to always keep the audience guessing and hopping. Although multi-faceted South African born singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler was on hand to lend a deeper R&B and soul-searing gospel element (his heartfelt, meditative “O Holy Night” was an intimate showstopper), along with his hilarious spot-on Nelson Mandela impression, this show truly belonged to the ladies.
Outsiders who think all smooth jazz sounds the same need to check out Keiko Matsui and Mindi Abair. Both have been core genre A-listers for years, but brought completely different vibes to the show’s colorful stylistic wanderings. Matsui showcased her masterful classical piano flair on a particularly magical/hypnotic medley of “Carol of the Bells/”My Favorite Things,” with Abair and Koz joining brassy forces in to make the spirits all the brighter. Mindi’s been venturing these past few years into fiery blues-rock territory, and showcased this deeper side of her evolving artistry on “All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues,” trading muscular riffs with powerhouse guitarist (and longtime Koz touring presence) Randy Jacobs, who is also a member of Mindi’s Boneshakers group.
No doubt everyone in attendance knew the Santa’s bag of goodies that the announced lineup of Koz, Abair, Matsui and Butler would bring. They knew they’d hear Quiet Storm, funked up or clap along versions of “Winter Wonderland” (which began with Koz, donning a shimmering silver jacket, roaming the crowd), “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “The Christmas Song” and “Sleigh Ride.” Meeting the unique spiritual needs of this year, Koz and Butler also sang lovely harmonies on “We Need A Little Christmas.”
Yet hands down, the most unexpectedly emotionally impactful moments came from guest star Shalea, a Quincy Jones protégé who’s technically still up and coming but has worked with many R&B greats. She stunned on everything from the explosive, churchy “O Come All Ye Faithful”/”Angels We Have Heard on High” mashup to an exquisite duet of “Mary Did You Know?” with Butler and a transcendent side by side piano duet with Keiko that brought classical and jazzy charm to “What Child Is This?” and “We Three Kings.” Shalea saved her deepest expressions for a decidedly non-Christmas moment, however - a tender and soulful piano-vocal version of “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life?” She was also part of another of the show’s many non-holiday highlights, a girls-only romp celebrating the enduring fire of the late great Aretha Franklin via a medley of her best-known classics.
Koz as always was game to introduce a bit of his own cultural tradition into the merry mix, sharing a humorous Adam Sandleresque monologue about how Christmas so intensely outshines Hanukkah during this time of year. To balance the scales, as he played his festive, folksy classic “Eight Candles” (mashed up a bit with “Hanukah o Hanukah”), he looked up as a huge dreidel descended above him and lights shone off its mirrored surface like a disco ball. When he asked the crowd, “How many of you celebrated Hanukah this year?” the tiny smattering of applause prompted him to say, “All seven of you! Wow, and I know they’re mostly my relatives!” Just too adorable!
Other spirited moments that captured the joys of the season without being overtly Christmas oriented were Butler leading the gang on a rambunctious ride through his uplifting gospel/funk jam “Brand New Day” and Koz, Matsui and Abair refreshing the crowd with a batch of their trademark radio hits (not surprisingly, the most crowd-pleasing was Abair’s wordless vocal/sax gem “Lucy’s. Led by Butler, the five performers, joined by the killer band featuring Jacobs, musical director and keyboardist Brian Simpson and bassist Nathaniel Kearney, Jr., wrapped the show with a stunning and timely singalong of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David anthem “What the World Needs Now.” With Koz and friends, there’s always a message amidst the mirth…and the feeling that the sense of joy to the world can be found in every groove and note.