Modesto may not get that white Christmas of holiday lore each year, but it certainly seems content to have a jazzy Christmas instead.
Since 2010, contemporary jazz saxophonist Dave Koz has brought his popular Christmas show to Gallo Center for the Arts four times. The last time was in 2015, and it returns again this year for a sold-out production Wednesday, Dec. 21.
The smooth-jazz hitmaker and nine-time Grammy nominee celebrates the 19th anniversary of his successful Christmas tour. As in years past, Koz brings a revolving roster of stars with him on the road for the holiday extravaganza. This year’s special guests are Jonathan Butler, Valerie Simpson and Kenny Lattimore.
“We’re very honored and happy to come back to Modesto. I love the Gallo Center, and it has become a yearly tradition. Nothing makes me happier than seeing familiar faces,” Koz, 53, said in a phone interview with The Modesto Bee from the road in Florida recently.
Koz said the enduring popularity of his Christmas tour comes from mixing it up each year with new artists. The performers help shape each year’s show with the selection of their favorite Christmas fare, as well as music from their own catalogs.
This year’s one returning act is singer and guitarist Butler, who Koz said brings “joy and fun to the show” as a collaborator. New to the show are R&B singer Lattimore and R&B and soul great Simpson, who is half the singing/producing duo of Ashford & Simpson. The pair co-wrote such Motown and soul hits as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
“People don’t know they wrote some of the most beloved, iconic songs. These are songs that make you feel good. That’s what all that music does for the soul,” Koz said.
This year’s tour also has some notable production changes. For the first time, all four artists will be onstage together to start. And Koz has decided to go less high-tech, ditching the big screens that projected in the background in years past.
“I feel like in our life now, we have our noses in screens too much. Whether television or iPad, we’re always staring at a screen. This time, there will be no distractions – no big screens,” he promised.
He also said audiences can expect the show to be about 65 percent Christmas-themed and 35 percent artists’ own repertoires. He said picking the performers each year is one part inspiration, one part luck.
“It’s a little bit crossing fingers and hoping it works out. Whatever makes for the best show will win. There’s really no ego; we all band together. And I love what it says to the audience,” he said. “These are four artists who could be doing their own show. But this is a microcosm of what life should be. With so much divisiveness and uncertainty, it feels like a nice opportunity to bring people together.”
Koz himself is, of course, no slouch in the success department. The entertainer has had nine No. 1 albums on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Album chart. His last Christmas album, 2014’s “The 25th of December,” spent eight weeks atop the charts. Over the summer, he toured with fellow jazz saxman David Sanborn and opened the U.S. and U.K. dates for Barry Manilow’s “One Last Time!” tour.
Koz, who calls himself a “nice Jewish boy,” said no one is more surprised by the enduring success of his Christmas tour than him.
“I feel so blessed and fortunate to have a tour that has lasted this long. We’ve created more of a feeling than concert for many years now. And people make it a holiday tradition,” he said. “I’ve watched kids come to the show, and they are now grown up and come with their kids. That’s the part that makes it special for us.”
So, then, what is Koz’s favorite holiday song to play himself?
“If I had to choose, it would be ‘White Christmas’; something about that melody is satisfying. Because I don’t sing, I’m always looking for a melody with a lot of meat on the bone. That is a melody that is so good and emotional – almost don’t need the lyrics.”
Or, as it turns out in Modesto, snow.