Listen to The Greyboy Allstars on Rhapsody...
Words by: Erik Koral
Karl Denson is one of the hardest working men in show business. Over the course of his career, the revered saxophone and flute player has played with Lenny Kravitz and formed several successful bands of his own including The Greyboy Allstars, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and now his new project, KD3: The Karl Denson Trio. Denson's roots are in jazz, but he's also played rock, funk, groove-jazz, hip-hop, and soul for the last two decades. Denson shows no signs of slowing down and is excited to be releasing new music with The Greyboy Allstars this month and a debut album from his new group KD3 in June. He's touring with The Greyboy Allstars throughout April and May in support of the new record and will tour with KD3 from June throughout the rest of the year.
Karl Denson by Brad Hodge
JamBase caught up with Karl Denson in Los Angeles, CA when he was as a special guest with the Benny D Band from New Orleans.
JamBase: The last time we sat down with you was late in 2004 when Karl Denson's Tiny Universe was in the middle of nonstop touring and headlining sold out shows at venues like The Fillmore in San Francisco. What made you decide to put the band on hiatus in 2006?
Karl Denson: We simply couldn't get a record done. We went through a lot of changes in the last couple of years, from new management to lineup changes, and there were a lot of different ideas about where the band was heading. We wrote a lot of tunes but couldn't really find ourselves, and I decided to put it to bed so we could get the next record done before we toured anymore.
JamBase: Ron Johnson is touring with New Monsoon, and John Staten is touring with a new band called On the One. Chris Littlefield, David Veith, and Brian Jordan are touring as Blu Sirkut and are involved with other projects. With everyone being so busy with new bands, do you see Tiny Universe getting back together in the future?
Karl Denson: I'm still in touch with all those guys and everyone is doing well but I really want to focus on getting the record done. So, it's too early to say but it will definitely be a big funk throw-down when it happens!
You're going on a big national tour with The Greyboy Allstars this April and May in support of What Happened to Television? (released April 17 on SCI Fidelity Records. This is the first Greyboy Allstars album to be released in the last ten years. Could you tell us why you decided to get the band back together, record and tour again?
We actually started doing these little reunion tours in 2001 and have been doing them every year since. We finally looked around at each other 18 months ago and decided that we would take all the creative steam out of the group if we didn't stop touring. We had to get back in the studio and make another record. So, in February 2006 we laid down new tracks and we're all really excited about the results. Not only are we excited about the record, but we're excited about the band again. We want to keep touring and adding even more new songs to our catalog.
When The Greyboy Allstars started releasing albums in the mid '90s and playing around the country, fans saw you as a revival of '70s Boogaloo groove-jazz and Grant Green style playing. Do you see this new album being a departure from that style?
No, it is pretty much the same style of music with some more modern elements. But, it's still a great old school record. I think we did a great job of creating something fresh but still has the feel of V-Neck sweaters [laughs]!
Karl Denson's Tiny Universe
After this Greyboy tour you will be releasing an album and hitting the road with your new group, KD3: The Karl Denson Trio. Why did you decide to put together this project last year and get back to your jazz roots?
The group was easy to carry around as a trio and it was a chance for me to do more playing and push myself as a sax player. That was my biggest motivation. Whatever I did I wanted it to be an educational experience for me. Playing with Anthony Smith and Brett Sanders, who are great jazz musicians, has been a really fun process. And, writing all this new material and recording has also been a blast.
How much of your new group focuses on improvisation versus composition?
The idea was to focus on improvisation initially but I would say it's still about 50-percent composition and 50-percent improvisation. I like to write so there's still a lot of structure and form to our playing. We are still very much in our infancy as a band. We have a lot of growing to do since we aren't even a year old yet. It's still feeling out who we are as a band and where we want to go.
Karl Denson by Adam George
Who were your big jazz influences in starting this project? Did you want to do an old school John Coltrane sound or a more modern sound like Branford Marsalis?
Neither of those really because I have been writing for so long. I guess my whole thing is wanting to be like Wayne Shorter, who has the perfect balance of playing and writing his own material.
Photo by Tobin Voggesser
There are two lines happening right now - the line that leads to the modern jazz guys like Branford and the line that leads to hip-hop like The Roots. I really think that hip-hop is carrying the load of the innovation.
-Karl on modern jazz
What do you think about the state of modern jazz?
I think there is some really cool stuff happening right now. There are two lines happening right now - the line that leads to the modern jazz guys like Branford and the line that leads to hip-hop like The Roots. I really think that hip-hop is carrying the load of the innovation.
Karl Denson by Tobin Voggesser
Yeah, and the great thing about The Roots is that they are a real band playing everything 100-percent live.
The loops they write are beautiful and poignant. They are definitely one of the major players right now.
How did you meet the other guys in KD3?
Brett Sanders was the first drummer I asked to play in the Tiny Universe but he wasn't sure he was the right guy for the job as he was more schooled in jazz than funk. I later ended up playing with his younger brother John Staten in Tiny Universe, which is pretty funny. But I knew Brett was the guy for KD3, so I called him up and he's been playing with us ever since. I also got the numbers of two jazz keyboard players in San Diego when I was recruiting for the Tiny Universe. David Veith was the first guy I called and ended up playing with, but I had gone to see Anthony Smith play a bunch with his band Global Funk, and always knew he was someone I wanted to play with down the line.
What is your mindset when you go into the recording process?
Normally I go rehearse with a band for a few days straight for up to 12 hours at a time before we record. For the KD3 record, I paired drummer Zak Najor from the old Greyboy Allstars lineup with Anthony Smith, and together we just knocked things out right in the studio and laid down five to six tracks. Then I brought in Eric Kalb from the current Greyboy lineup and Robert Walter to finish things up.
KD3 by Brian Diescher
What can we expect on this KD3 record? Will there be any bells and whistles you don't hear live?
I think there will be some new things on there for sure. Writing wise, I tried to stretch myself out a bit more. It may be a bit more down-tempo than people are used to with Tiny Universe, more changes harmonically and it's definitely a "meaty" record.
Are there any vocals?
No, this is totally instrumental.
Tell us about your tour plans for the rest of the year with KD3?
We're going to play a lot of jazz festivals this summer and hit up traditional venues as well. This year I also plan on finishing up the Tiny Universe record to be released next year and also play some shows with Benny D.
Karl Denson by Aaron Williams
Can you tell me how you guys met?
I met Benny about five or six years ago when he was opening for the Tiny Universe. He gave me a CD and I really liked it and liked his writing, so we stayed in touch. We did a show together at Jazz Fest last year and I was really impressed with the band. I'm producing their next album and helping the band however I can.
You sometimes bring your kids on tour with you. Do your children aspire to play music?
They love music! My nine-year old girl is playing piano, and I can safely say she is better than I am. She's also in a play called High School Musical. My 12-year old daughter wants to play guitar and my 11-year old son wants to play drums. Hopefully we will have the Denson Family Band in a few more years.
Karl D - Sexual Chocolate
By Adam Davila
You play in New Orleans often and regularly sell out shows at Jazz Fest every year. How did the events of Hurricane Katrina affect you? What do you see for the future of that city and rich musical culture?
I'm still in shock really. I went back there a year after that happened and the city was still really messed up. Things are a long way from being totally rebuilt and taken care of. As far as the music, I see the community bouncing back to some extent but so many people were displaced. It's really too early to say what will happen.
You got your first national exposure playing with Lenny Kravitz. You reunited with him recently at Jazz Fest and a few other shows. Do you still talk to Lenny often and do you see yourself playing with him more in the future?
I talk to him every once-in-a-blue-moon but the guy is such a mystery to me, and it remains a mystery whether I will play with him again.
Karl Denson by Michael Weintrob
Lastly, you were a member of Sexual Chocolate in Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. Do you still get called out on that?
All the time man, all the time [laughs]. Tiny Universe even gave into that whole thing and we dressed up as Sexual Chocolate at a Halloween show a few years back. It was definitely a cool experience.
JamBase | San Diego
Go See Live Music!