KARL DENSON'S TINY UNIVERSE | 11.03 | DENVER

For being the beginning of November, Colorado is still one of the warmest areas in the U.S.A. This was to be one of those beautiful late autumn nights in the city of Denver, and a night to remember with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe and Soulive rolling into town. This show was a highly anticipated event for me. After a long week at work and a toothache on Halloween that prevented me from getting to see the The Motet, this was to be my steak and potatoes of the weekend.

Everything about this night was perfect; the music, activities and the new coming of the Tiny Universe. After seeing KDTU over 20 times in 6 states and with 4 trumpet players, I have seen every line up change they have made. Being a big fan of Carlos, Ephrim, and Andy, it’s hard to see someone with talent leave a band that you love. But now horn man Curtis Littlefield steps in with big shoes to fill, as he stands next to the funkmaster throwing down to his right. The next member to have left the band was Eric Bolivar, the band’s longtime drummer, and in his place is Zak Najor. Having been spoiled enough to have seen the Greyboy Allstars, it was a pleasure for me to see him behind Karl again. The last change, but not the least, was Mike Dillon, percussionist master from Critters Buggin. This guy rips it up, just as he did at Red Rocks Amphitheater over the summer at So Many Roads. With the lineup in place and the tunes in my head, we rushed off for Denver from the Fort.

The drive down I25 is something to see. It only has two lanes until about fifteen miles outside of Denver. For anyone that has driven on the East coast or Midwest, you know that this cannot work, especially outside of an urban area. About thirty miles outside Denver there was an accident. This caused a massive block of gapers that caused a forty- minute delay in our arrival. We missed the entire Soulive set. I was very disappointed to be so late, for this was to be my fourth show with these jazz masters, and we missed it.

For those of you that have never passed through the doors of the Fillmore, let me put a mental picture in your head. It is a big open room that fits about 4,000 people. The side has a small area to sit in, but the rest is like one huge garage. Six florescent, purple chandeliers that make the average human want to shoot them out with a B.B. gun light up the floor. The sides are filled with the usual bars, bathroom, etc. It is a lot like the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, or the original The Fillmore in San Francisco. The worst part of the venue is the ceiling, which is completely made up of metal graters that cause a horrid echo at certain times in the music. But the scene was set, Karl and the gang entered and played what could be the best set I have seen him play since the monster shows earlier this year at the House of Blues in Chicago with Robert Walter.

The first set was blanketed with highlights of both old and new for the sax master and his band. The highlights were “Family Tree,” which was just under twenty minutes and included some of the best layering I’ve ever heard from Karl. The middle jam out of the chorus has always impressed me in this song. Each member of the band gave their all in soloing and in forming a tight groove together. This version was to prove once again that this song is a stepping stone to a great evening. The layering on this jam was incredibly solid. The bass and percussion were outstanding, and they let the horn section find the groove and keep it flowing from there. The only disappointing part of the jam was that you could barley here David Vieth on the keyboards, (this was a problem all night), because of the percussion rattling off the ceiling. But all three jams by Karl, Curtis, and Bryan Jordan were fantastic. The solo out of Karl’s first lead is the defining moment for any trumpet player performing with this band. Curtis steped it up as he ripped this one apart, and throughout the night impressed me with his grooves on the trumpet and the leads he and Karl fed each other. The vibe between them seemed to be tight, which was good to see. On a side note, Mike Dillon tore the roof of the venue the entire night. He flowed through everything with a style and grace unlike that of an orchestra percussionist. He took every note seriously, and played off everyone very smoothly. But “Family Tree” was only the first of many highlights in this set, and though it may have been the best song of the night overall, it had some fierce competition. The set also included a fiery “Dance Lesson #2,” in which Karl blew up on every level of the woodwinds, carrying the entire band on his back while the crowd learned a valuable lesson in funk. “Fallin” was another nice addition to the night, and got the extra large crowd going once again in a funk groove. The other set highlight was the phenomenal song “Flute Down,” with the only guest of the evening, a local Chicago man like myself, Fareed Haque. For those who do not know the music of this master of Garaj Mahal, and various other bands, he is one of the finest jazz guitarists in the world. This was a flat-out talent show with Karl, Bryan Jordan, and Fareed exchanging licks off each other while the crowd got off its feet and shook the roof. Fareed had a monster solo in the middle that brought a smile to every one of the musicians’ faces as they watched an old master playing with the new faces on the scene. It was nice to see him blasting away with Bryan Jordan as if he was teaching Bryan a lesson. But then Bryan threw some grooves down Fareed’s way, and the jam was complete. They did not keep him on after that song, but this has to be one of the best versions of “Flute Down” that this band has ever played, and it marked the night as what I thought was going to be one of the top shows of the year.

The set break music was very annoying with a lot of dub and hip hop which could not be understood because of the echoes off the ceiling. I was really hoping to hear some Eddie Harris, or even the new Soulive disc over the loud speakers, but this seems to be a bad trend for the jazz and funk scene. I love urban poetry and the mark of a good DJ, but this was some of the worst hip hop I had heard in years. Stick to the Blue Note material during set break Karl, or at least mix it up for the fans eagerly awaiting your return.

The second set was quite a different pace than the first. While the first set was filled with old school funk, the second set had more of a techno/African beat to it. The first tune was an instrumental that seemed to have all the makings of a great Blue Note jam, but then slid off when the percussion session seemed to layer its grooves one over another. It did not seem right to me that there was so much percussion during one jam, killing the evolving funk groove set by Bryan Jordan, and even Karl was dancing around with a timbale. I like percussion as much as the next person, but inside a place that rattles, the other musicians need a chance to be heard over the drums and bass. The vocals in the set were also disturbing. Zak started out on a tune which had no place being in the set. It was a flaky, almost pop number that had the worst overtones and beat behind his vocals, which, in my opinion, should not have been used. He is a great drummer, one of the best in funk, but should not sing like so many musicians on this scene. The first highlight of the set was the great “I am so Satisfied,” which sparked the first tight jams of the set and had the crowd turning up and down as Karl guided us through the funk train.

As the set progressed, the jamming seemed to pick up again, and with the beginning words of the Curtis Mayfield classic, “Check your Mind,” I thought I was going to be in heaven. This could have been the worst version of this song in its long and decorated history in funk. Karl has always started this song out with one hell of a sax solo that would get even my grandmother dancing out of her grave. This song is laden with overtones of funk and great layering of keys and guitar mixed in with Karl’s sax. This version, complete with 3-minute flute solo, was horrid. The beat sounded nothing like any previous version I’ve heard, and it almost sounded like a live techno beat was being mixed over the flute. The funk was completely wasted out of this experimental version, at least I hope that’s what it was. The night got much better with “Can you Feel It,” which provided the right setting after such an odd jam. This was right on track with Karl and Curtis flowing off each other, and Karl sounded excellent on vocals with this great R&B-type number. The last tune, and the best KDTU closer in my opinion, “Groove On,” was by far the highlight of the set. This jam was spectacular with everyone getting their last hurrahs in after a so-so set. The one downer of this song was a vocal jam shared by Karl and Zak that did not fit very well in the middle, but oh well. The jam around the vocals was incredible, and everyone was up off their feet. After the great jam, the band left and I was hungry for a beautiful encore to make the second set seem a bit more complete. The question in my mind was, where was Soulive? And why didn't they come out? Their absence prompted me to believe that “Payback” or “Spanish Castle Magic” would be the encore. Instead they played another song I wanted to hear, a tribute the late Fela Kuti called “Elephants.” This song was raging, like every previous version I have heard. Karl and the percussion section just seem to be in each other’s heads and flowed off each other. Mike Dillon added the flavor while Karl seasoned it with tribal beats that could make even the elephants get up and dance. This song proved his versatility as a musician, with his chants and saxophone playing that made everyone get up and dance, regardless of any knowledge of the music. He is a master like Fela, and will always continue to shine bright and bring a glimmer of what music should be in this world.

It was not a bad night to be a human in the lovely state of Colorado. It was very good to hear KDTU mixing it up as they always have with a great combination of jazz, funk, African, R&B, and tribal beats. The two disappointments of the night were the vocals and the techno. The funk was there, but the venue echoed and caused a back beat of thumps and bass bumps in my head. As for the venue, it should be torn down and a new one erected in its place, or at least, the metal bars should be removed from the ceiling. To the band, thanks for a great showing of musical talent, and a phenomenal first set. Until later America, stand tall and dance fast and go see Karl anywhere you can before the venues he plays get too big, and the true beauty of his music can not be heard …..

Dallas Kuykendall
JamBase | Colorado
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[Published on: 11/12/01]

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