Dave Koz and Valerie Simpson perform a Christmas medley.
There was an immense elephant in the room when Dave Koz took the stage at Town Hall Tuesday night for his 2016 Christmas show, this year featuring Valerie Simpson ("royalty," as Koz correctly described her), Kenny Lattimore and Jonathan Butler.
It was the same immense elephant, whose Voldemort-like name cannot and need not be spoken, undoubtedly casting a pall in every room this holiday season—and especially in New York. For sure everyone felt its presence when Koz, after opening (with his three guests) with a jazzy "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," verbally greeted his audience with what is now the ultimate understatement: "What a year!"
The pressure drop was palpable. He didn't have to specify, but he narrowed the year down to the last month-and-a half, then asked everyone to try to unify in order to offset the divisiveness and uncertainty that only seems to increase each day.
"There's a very good reason we like these songs year after year," he said. "They're great songs, and they remind us of simpler times."
So much for yesteryear. It is Koz's 19th annual Christmas tour, this one a whirlwind of 24 shows in 28 days. "Anyone been to all 19?" he asked. "I'm not even sure I've been to all 19!"
Simpson, incredibly, had never done a full concert tour before, not even with her late husband Nick Ashford.
"Can you believe it took all these years to put me on a bus?" she asked during the show. Afterwards, when she and the group retired to her West Side restaurant/nightclub Sugar Bar (where David Letterman show guitarist Felicia Collins took a turn during the late Tuesday night Nuttin' But the Blues open mic set) she declared: "I didn't know I needed the bus experience. You don't know what you've missed until you do it—and I needed the bus experience!"
Simpson also gave it up for Dave's band of guitarist/music director Randy Jacobs, keyboardist Brian Simpson (no relation to Valerie, his new album Persuasion is a big Smooth Jazz chart hit), bassist Nathaniel Kearney Jr. ("You better stop it!" Valerie admonished) and drummer Jay Williams, whom she credited for her losing weight during the tour, since she can't stop dancing.
A medley of Ashford & Simpson's Motown hits provided the show's centerpiece, with the three guys joining in on backing vocals and understandably smiling with delight. Simpson also sang Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," and pointed out that Holiday wrote it. For her big Ashford & Simpson hit "Solid," she did her best to approximate Ashford's vocal part.
Lattimore skillfully dissolved "I'll Be Home for Christmas" into his big hit "For You," and added his to the long list of memorable versions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." In addition to his readily adaptive saxophone play—doubling sax riffs, for example, with Simpson's vocals on "Angels We Have Heard on High"--the ever engaging Koz showed off nimble footwork in chorus line dance moves with Jacobs and Kearney. And noting how comparatively few Hanukkah songs are available, Koz opted for Adam Sandler's novelty "The Chanukah Song."
But it was South African singer-songwriter/guitarist Jonathan Butler who nearly stole the show, giving an African intro to "Little Drummer Boy" and providing some much-needed spoken reassurance at the end of the Bob Marley classic "No Woman, No Cry": "It's gonna be all right, New York City," he said, immense elephant in the room notwithstanding. "God's in the house. You're not alone."
Ensuring that the true holiday spirit was not lost, everyone joined in on the perfect closer, Ashford & Simpson's classic "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)." And in keeping with its message, Koz is using the tour to support SOS Children's Villages' efforts on behalf of abandoned and orphaned children.