RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: No dilemmas for The Texas Horns when it comes to the Blues

The Texas Horns are John Mills (baritone sax), Al Gomez (trumpet) and Mark Kaz' Kazanoff (tenor sax). Photo: Chris Caselli

In the late ’90s, Mark ‘Kaz’ Kazanoff was touring with Colin James’s Little Big Band and one of the gigs was at the RBC Ottawa Bluesfest.

He was wandering the grounds in front of the Canadian War Museum when he happened upon a gathering in a food tent.

“There was Connor Grimes (a member of the festival board) cooking swordfish steaks and Mark Monahan (Bluesfest executive director) was there, smoking cigars, and all the old board members. For some reason,” Kaz said, “I just hit it off with all of them.”

About three months later Grimes called Kaz and asked “‘What would it take to get you back up here’. At that same time I was talking to John Mills about forming a horn section mainly for recording stuff and local gigs in Austin, Texas” where they were living.

“I had no idea there might be a possible outlet in Ottawa, Canada.”

He told Grimes about the horn section and a few days later Monahan called, Kaz said in an interview with ARTSFILE. 

Monahan asked if The Texas Horns would come to Ottawa the following summer as the resident horn section and accompany whomever wanted or needed their help.  Some 19 years later, they’ve only missed one festival because they were touring in Europe in July. 

In a normal year, the Texas Horns will do 20 to 25 shows and as many as three shows on a busy day.

“We might be jumping from one stage to the next.”

For about two weeks Ottawa becomes a home away from home for Kaz and his mates.

But these are busy guys. They back up dozens of bands in studio and on stage in one of the busiest music cities in the U.S. One of their regular gigs is with Jimmie Vaughan. In fact they were on stage in the Royal Albert Hall in London England this past May opening for Eric Clapton. It was a memorable night.

“My daughters were both there. My oldest lives in London. She’s married to a Brit. My youngest daughter was there visiting her and they came to the show.”

While The Texas Horns is the primary focus, they do play with Vaughan a lot, up to 40 dates a year.

“I have been playing with him since 1974 when he was with the (Fabulous) Thunderbirds. They used to come to Boston and they’d all pile into my one bedroom apartment. Don’t get me started about some of the stuff that went down with them.”

Kaz has been a witness — and a participant in almost 50 years of American music history.

“I started playing harmonica before I owned a saxophone. I paid my dues when I was in Chicago. I fronted a band, singing and playing harmonica.”

He was in Chicago when Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Hound Dog Taylor and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were playing.

“I got to hear all those guys. I would go out two or three nights a week to hear them play in Chicago. I was really lucky that I got to hear that stuff live. I played with a lot of them — Otis Rush, a little bit with Hound Dog, I sat in with Magic Sam.”

He graduated to a tenor saxophone when he was 22.

“It seemed like a logical progression. They are both reed instruments in a strange way and both wind instruments. They are both vocal instruments. You play like you would sing.

“I think a lot of the way I play saxophone comes from the way I play harmonica. I am really not a complicated player. I don’t play a lot of notes. My alter-ego is Les Izmore.”

Kaz is a self-described blues guy, even though he does play jazz. And because he’s from Austin, he plays Texas blues.

“Horns are a big part of it and there is something about the shuffle and the groove and the laid-backness of it. It’s also got a lot of intensity to it. You come to Texas and you learn and you play with Texas people then you start to get the feel of it.”

These days, in addition to backing the great and near great, The Texas Horns have released their second album called Get Here Quick. It’s their first on the Severn Records label.

The Horns put out their first CD four years ago on a different label called Blues Gotta Hold of Me. It was, Kaz says, an homage to the artists that they admire.

This new album is all original material.

“We wanted to do one that was us. We wanted to write everything on the record and produce and arrange it. We were making more of a personal statement about who we are and where we are at in our lives.

“We thought we would make music that was a bit more accessible to a festival stage. We know what that takes. We wanted to still have music that was blues related because that’s who we are.”

But there are no shuffles on the record, nor is there any slow blues. It’s closer to straight up R&B. 

“I wondered if there might be some negative reaction because we weren’t playing simpler blues. I thought maybe the blues police were going to come after us, but so far totally the opposite.”

The recording took a year to complete because they invited a lot of guests to sing on the record including people like John NemethAnson FunderburghCurtis Salgado, Ronnie Earl and Gary Nicholson. Scheduling sessions was tricky.

One of Kaz’s songs from the album came from a chance conversation with his old friend Susan Antone of the famous Antone’s Nightclub in Austin.

“One night I went down to Antone’s club in Austin and Susan Antone, who I have been friends with for a long time, was sitting at a table there and I sat down with her and I asked ‘Susan, how you doing?’

“And she said, “I’m doing alright, at least for tonight.’ I got up from the table, went home and wrote the song because it hit me so hard.” She is credited in the liner notes.

Speaking of the liner notes … they are are written by Les Izmore.

“John Mills and I were talking and I asked ‘Who are we going to get to do the liner notes?’ And John just looked at me and said ‘Why don’t we just get Les Izmore to do it?’ I thought he was joking.” 

It made some sense because, after all Kaz (Les) does have a PhD in music from the University of Texas.

“There was a lot about music that I wanted to know so at the ripe old age of 30 something I went to the University of Texas.” He got his masters and then his doctorate.

“It was an amazing experience for somebody who came out of the world that I came out of. I was not a music reader. I didn’t know how until I was in my 30s. In a way I was a disadvantage with all the young kids in college but in another way I had an advantage because my ears were so good.”

“I was a student of jazz then. At the time, in the ’90s, there was no jazz degree at the University of Texas so I was theory and composition major.

He didn’t dabble in classical then but these days, “all of a sudden, about nine months ago, I started listening to Bartok, Prokofiev and Janacek. Now when I put records on my turntable, it’s mostly that.

“The harmonic thing that is going on sounds so fresh and interesting and cool to me.”

This year at Bluesfest, they’ll be backing bands and on July 6 they’ll have their own slot on the City Stage. They’ll perform with Ottawa’s The Split (Curtis and Matthew Chaffey). The same lineup will be at The Rainbow on Canada Day night.

“We’ve known those guys since they were teenagers. We got to be buddies and fans and we did some recording with them on their CD. So it seemed like a no-brainer to ask them to back us up.”

Kaz was cleaning up some details before making the trip north. Before he gets to town he will have emailed to all the artists telling them that The Texas Horns are the festival’s horn section and they available and free to use.

“You’d be surprised how many get in touch.” Not really. 

The Texas Horns
Where: The Rainbow Bistro (with The Split)
When: July 1 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: therainbow.ca

Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Bluesville Stage (with The Split)
When: July 6 at 6 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

Where: Irene’s Pub
When: July 17 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: irenespub.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.