A VISIT TO THE TINY UNIVERSE OF KARL DENSON

The day I’m set to talk to Karl I wear a Tiny Universe concert tee shirt so I can exhude some of the residual mojo that the garment has picked up at KDTU shows. It is a ringer tee with a logo modeled after the classic red, white and blue NBA logo. Before the interview, I ruminate on one of the real giants in the music world while touching the slightly raised pattern on my chest. Like the basketball players who’ve sported similar logos, Karl Denson is an all-star player in every sense of the phrase.

From his early days as the sax force with Lenny Kravitz to his stint in the seminal Greyboy Allstars, he’s laid down deep, funky grooves. When I first saw him with the Tiny Universe on a stoney April 20th at the Warfield, I was unprepared for the power and the wicked tightness of his band. Bouncing in time to the humungous rhythm, Karl seemed to me as the new hope for Soul Jazz, a genre defined in the late 1960’s and polished to slinky perfection in the early years of the 1970’s. I felt like someone had finally picked up the torch from pioneers like Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz Ntu Troop and Melvin Sparks. At the same time the band could stop on a dime and whip out a hard bop cooker that would have made Lee Morgan smile, always underlying each tune was a ferocious groove, primal and sweaty and pure.

While I was extremely captivated by the live Denson shows, I’d been uniformly disappointed by his studio efforts. The melodies were sturdy but the flair and invention of the performances was missing. That’s what makes the brand new disc from the Tiny Universe so surprising. The Bridge is as good a record as I’ve heard in a long, long time. Crisp, catchy and knee deep in the funk. It is a calling card to the rest of the world to explore the Tiny Universe.

JamBase: So many studio efforts by jam bands fail to capture what it is the fans love about them in concert. The Bridge managed to take a lot of tunes I knew well from shows and shine them in a totally different light. How did you approach making the transition with this material from stage to studio?

Karl Denson (KD): I think we have quite a bit of experience, with my experience over the years of doing anything from rock and roll to r&b projects to jazz projects. So we have quite a bit of experience from my standpoint. And my drummer Zak (Najor), who was in the Greyboy Allstars, is interested in trying new things in terms of arrangement. When we did the record he’d only been a member of the band for about four months. It was nice to go into recording with some fresh ears. One thing I learned from Lenny (Kravitz) is there’s a difference between a studio record and a live show. When I was working with Lenny he was working with all these overdubs and I was wondering how are we going to pull this off live. He said you can’t worry about what you’re going to do live when you make a studio record. Between him and Zak’s ideas it made a big difference.

JamBase: With a lot of the tunes the tempo changed a lot with the studio versions. Songs that you play all out in concert you were able to lay back a bit and let it be more soulful, if that’s the right word.

KD: We kind of battled that right after the studio in getting the live show back to the excitement levels we had before. The band had to realize that there’s one way you play it in the studio and there’s another live. You have to create a different kind of excitement live so moving that back and forth is a delicate task but luckily the musicianship was up for it.

JamBase: That leads me into something I wanted to ask about. You’re a really great musician but in the past few years you’ve also grown into a strong bandleader, too. How do those two roles differ for you?

KD: I always took the writing aspect of being a musician very seriously because I always thought those were the people who really had control over their destiny. When I was a kid and sitting around listening to records and reading the covers, I always looked at who wrote the tunes. So I always looked at that as being a real important thing. As a bandleader I’ve tried to concentrate on writing good tunes and having a good concept of where I want the band to go. As a result it taught me how to deal with artists and players in my band and to get the best out of them.

JamBase: One of things that excited me about this record, even before I got to hear it, was this seems like the first album from a solidified line-up of the Tiny Universe. The other records seemed to me more Karl Denson records. This really struck me as the first time we were going to get to hear what the Tiny Universe had to lay down in the studio.

KD: And it totally is. I feel like it’s a fresh start for us. From this point on we’re pretty much a solidified band and we’re making more decisions as a band. Coming from the Allstars which was such an amazing band and such an amazing coincidence that we joined forces that it was kinda scary.

JamBase: All you guys (Robert Walter, DJ Greyboy, Chris Stillwell) have the status of legends to fans of this music and that you were all in one group together sort of blows everyone’s mind.

KD: It blew my mind. To try and repeat that is a big task. It took a few years and we finally have it dialed in and that’s what this record is all about.

JamBase: What made you decide to release this album with Relaxed Records rather than Blue Note where a lot of your stuff has been coming out?

KD: Well, Blue Note decided to drop me. I think we had too big a deal for them; they were having some budget problems. And I think what I do is a little weird for the small-minded.

JamBase: For those coming from the outside I’m not sure they’re always able to find a way into this music.

KD: Exactly. At a certain point they said it’s going to be hard to rein this in because I plan on constantly changing and concentrating on all aspects of my life in the music. Writing vocal tunes, one of the things that was nice about not being with Blue Note, is I think we have a much better chance of doing what we’ve always wanted to do which is break the dance radio format, kind of break that wide open.

JamBase: Flexibility is not a word I usually associate with major labels. They’re not able to move on the fly, which I think is one of the big strengths of the Tiny Universe and the jam community, if you can even use that phrase, in general. How do you guys approach that because you play music that doesn’t fit into easy categories? How do feel about the response of say Grateful Dead fans and others have given you?

KD: We’ve been breaking this barrier for a few years and I’ve just found that those kids that listen to the Grateful Dead, the so-called jamband audience, have pretty much the widest musical tastes of any kids out there. My idea way back was to find a new audience for jazz. It was time to find some new blood and I think that’s what they supply into this jazz field. In Japan they were asking me what’s the difference between playing the Japanese rock festivals and the jazz festivals in the States and I said the jazz festivals we’ve played, the pure jazz festivals have been great but a little bit staid stylistically. I feel like the jam festivals we play like High Sierra and Berkshire and Bonnaroo were much more jazz festivals than the pure jazz festivals we’ve played this year just in terms of true experimentation.

JamBase: Agreed. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing you're late night set at Bonnaroo a few months ago, what do you make of all of it? When I saw the numbers afterwards I couldn’t believe I’d been in the middle of 100,000 people at some points.

KD: It was amazing. The variety of music, the great organization and the total coolness of the crowd, it blew everybody’s mind. I did a lot of press and that was one of the big questions was how does this happen? How do this many people get together and there’s no hassles, no fights or no arrests pretty much and everybody’s having a great time. I think it really is all about the music for these fans. It’s not just some social gathering. Most things will eventually become that, kind of like what people tell me about Phish shows. The audiences' kind of changed into being more agro because they’re coming for a social gathering whereas before they were coming for the music. This scene right now is just all about the music and that’s why there’s so much great energy and music coming out of it.

JamBase: There are lot of bands feeling this moment of opportunity. They seem to be playing at the top of their game right now. You play with a lot of these guys. I wonder what it’s like being inside of it. Do you talk with other bands you’ve worked with; do they also feel like something is happening now?

KD: There’s definitely some pressure on everyone now because you know out of the ten bands that are going to play there’s going to be three or four of them that are going to crush you on any one night. So we came in prepared mentally for Bonnaroo because we knew it was going to be a nice dogfight.

JamBase: I like when it turns into a friendly cutting competition where every band is ready to give their best.

KD: When you have that many great bands --Soulive, Robert Randolph, String Cheese, Medeski Martin & Wood, Widespread Panic, Spearhead-- you know you gotta kick some ass or your show’s going to be forgotten.

JamBase: You’ll be the one that isn’t talked about and you don’t want to be that.

KD: Exactly

JamBase: I just heard a piece of a show you did recently with Phil Lesh and Friends in San Diego. That “Eyes of the World” was set on fire by your presence. Best version I’ve heard this year from them no question. What was that like being up there with that band? It strikes me as being a master class playing with those five guys.

KD: (whistles low and impressed) Man, Jimmy Herring and Warren Haynes, man, come on!!! (We both laugh) I’m a big Jimmy Herring fan from his Aquarium Rescue Unit days and I’m up in the dressing room and I’m kicking it with this guy who I didn’t realize was Jimmy Herring. He’s just totally cool and we’re having a fun, light conversation. And I walk out of the room and someone mentions Jimmy and says you know the guy you were just talking to back there. So I go back in there and say, ‘Dude I didn’t know it was you. I’m a big fan.’ And then getting on stage with him, I was like come on give me a break!! He was really vicious. I’m looking forward to doing that again because that was definitely one of the best times I’ve had on stage.

JamBase: I always find it strangely heartening as a long time fan of a lot of this music that you’re involved in that musicians themselves can still be knocked out by getting to meet and play with these guys, that you haven’t lost that even though you play in the same world.

KD: You know what, these guys are really good and it’s really an honor to be associated with them. And they keep getting better. We did a bunch of festivals this summer with Bela Fleck and that band is just coming alive like nobody’s business. I’ve always liked them but each time I hear them I’m like ‘Come on guys, give a guy a break.’ They’re killing, they are absolutely killing it. Jeff Coffin (saxophonist of Flecktones), the stuff he has to learn from Bela is insane. There are things about different instruments that work and don’t work on other instruments and so I hear these guys playing these lines together and afterwards I ask Jeff how much time do you spend learning those damn lines? And he says a lot. It’s a lot because Bela comes up with a banjo line that doesn’t necessarily fit on a saxophone but it sounds amazing when you pull it off together.

JamBase: That’s a lot of the fun of this music is the stuff that doesn’t make any sense when you describe it but when you hear it you say I’m so glad that sound exists now. Going back to The Bridge, one of the things that really jumps out at me is your singing and the singing in general. It has the carefully arranged lushness that goes back to the heyday of I Want You or What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. It really has the feel of a classic soul record to me.

KD: Well thank you, man. That’s what we were attempting to get to. We spent a lot of time on the vocals, not as much as I’d have liked to, but it was a new thing for us especially with a limited budget; though we spent a ton of money on this record way, more than we’ve spent on anything we’ve done before. It was a big task trying to make the vocals match the track.

JamBase: In concert you’re pulling off a lot of things. You’re leading the band, you’re playing saxophone, you’re singing, you’re playing the flute. With this record I got the sense that you became much more serious about your own singing.

KD: It’s a really fun thing. In the last year I’ve started to really feel like a singer and I pull no punches. I’ve been playing the saxophone for 30 years but I’ve only been singing for eight or nine. I realized the reason why Michael Jackson or Marvin Gaye are such great singers is because they’ve been singing all their lives. I’m looking forward to my growth as a singer into actually being able to stand on stage and feel like I’m hanging with the big boys vocally.

JamBase: I have one humble suggestion while we’re on the topic of Marvin Gaye. For the longest time I’ve been thinking the song “Got To Give It Up” is tailor made for the Tiny Universe. There’s something in that song that tells me your band could take it into outer space.

KD: That’s funny because I have this tune called “Cosmopolitan” and we just rearranged it and put in that little reggae bubble keyboard thing that “Got To Give It Up” has.

JamBase: There’s that bounce that puts asses in motion in both songs.

KD: Let me know what you think about “Cosmopolitan” next time you hear it because that’s what we've been aiming for with that tune, so maybe we’ll have to cover that as a bookend. Marvin Gaye’s always scary when you try to cover him or covering Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway.

JamBase: You’re holding yourself up against some pretty awesome figures.

KD: These guys are such great singers that they’re just freaky scary.

JamBase: The music also has this eerie timelessness to it. You know it was made at a certain period but there was so much care put into it that it also exists out of time.

KD: What we’ve been trying to get to as a band is the old concept of having one guy write the tunes, another guy arranges the rhythm track, another arranges the vocals, another arranges the horns or string arrangement so you have this mesh of ideas that could never possibly come from one person. I think that’s where Marvin Gaye’s genius is from, that Motown tradition of creating this lush music because you brought in arrangers. I’ve been trying to encourage the band to throw more ideas out so we can do that. We did that with this record, allowing everybody to have a say when we’re writing things and when we’re in the studio so we end up with a more lush concept of what we do.

JamBase: I think people are really hearing it. I played the record for a friend on a drive the other day and he immediately said I gotta go buy this album. And he’s not someone overly familiar with your stuff but he knew that something was different and responded to it on a visceral level.

KD: I’ve been very happy with this record more so than any that I’ve made with the exception of maybe Herbal Turkey Breast, my old jazz record. It does the same thing to me. I don’t like to listen to myself very much and with this record I get to end of it and think this is fun. And that’s a good thing. That’s what I wanted from this record, a fun listen straight through.

JamBase: You play with a whole bunch of great people and I’m always impressed with the way you integrate other musicians into the Tiny Universe in concert and you did the same thing with the guests on this album. How do you approach bringing somebody in without giving up the identity of your band in doing that?

KD: When we’re playing I try not to do so much with other people that it gets in the way of us getting our vibe on. So, when I brought the people in for the record it was mainly the band there. And I’d drop Chris Wood (MMW) in on bass for a while but Ron (Johnson)’s right there listening to it. When I brought Lonnie Smith in to play organ, I’ve got Dave (Veith) playing keyboards next to him. And when Fareed (Haque) was playing, Brian (Jordan) was still playing guitar with him. So I always try to keep my band intact.

JamBase: How much do you guys tour each year? It seems like the number of dates keeps going up and up.

KD: It seems like it. We probably do 200, 250 dates a year, something like that.

JamBase: You guys are like the (Duke) Ellington Orchestra. On the road way more than you’re at home.

KD: It’s hard because I got a big band. To feed all these guys we have to keep working. I would really like this year that we can grow to be like a String Cheese where we can go out for a month and a half and then go home for two months. At this point we still gotta bite and scratch for everything we get because we’re still at that mid-level. We’re trying to do things big, bring out our own light and sound so the show can grow but at the same time it costs a lot of money so we’re having to sacrifice in that way of staying on the road.

JamBase: I have the utmost respect for people who earn a living as a working musician, that you’re willing to keep at it even though you aren’t getting rich.

KD: It’s a crazy thing. Talking to my wife, sometimes she gets stressed about how much we work but I tell her I gotta make hay while the sun shines. I look at my job and I might as well be a pro tennis player. Who knows how long this is going to last. This is a joy ride we got going.

JamBase: I want to read you a short list of a few musicians' names and I want you to give me a quick snapshot of what their name brings up for you.

KD: Alright.

JamBase: Mike Dillon (Critters Buggin, Frog Brigade, sometimes KDTU percussionist).

KD: Mike Dillon...madman, madman (his voice trails off)

JamBase: Fareed Haque (Garaj Mahal and any band at a festival he can play with...).

KD: Unlimited chops and unlimited vocabulary.

JamBase: Fred Wesley (trombonist with James Brown, Parliament and many others).

KD: Doctor Funk.

JamBase: Skerik (Frog Brigade, Critters Buggin, Stanton Moore’s jazz band, Crack Sabbath).

KD: Skerik...my nemesis (we both laugh loudly).

JamBase: Now the boys in your band. Brian Jordan (guitarist).

KD: He plays like he’s always high. Creatively he always blows my mind like that.

JamBase: Absolutely. When I saw you open for String Cheese in Las Vegas last year, the first night when Brian and the drummer came out and just opened it up he took that audience over in like three minutes.

KD: At the same time he can lay back and play the most sick pocket part and have no ego about it.

JamBase: Chris Littlefield (trumpet)

KD: He is the most improved player.

JamBase: David Veith (keyboards).

KD: Keith is Mister Chord; he’s the chord man in the band.

JamBase: I like seeing him on stage because the music comes out of his whole body. How about Ron Johnson (bass)?

KD: He is the individual in the band. He’s got his own thing and he has no problem expressing himself.

JamBase: And finally got to give the drummer some, Zak Najor.

KD: Zak Najor is the backbone; he’s the backbone of anything he does. He puts his heart into everything he does and I would have to say he’s the backbone and the genius of the band.

JamBase: When he joined the band I felt something profound had changed but I couldn’t spell it out exactly. Just a feeling. I can’t say it any better than that.

KD: It was a big decision getting rid of Eric Bolivar and bringing Zak into the band but he’s always been my favorite drummer and the guy who understands what I’m trying to do. So I knew we were going to take a few steps back last Fall by bringing him in because the chemistry wasn’t there yet but I also knew we would take ten steps forward eventually. I feel like that’s what we’ve done now.

JamBase: One thing I dig about collecting shows from the Tiny Universe is how you’ve brought a lot of the originators of Soul Jazz out of the shadows. I’m talking about greats like Fred Wesley and Melvin Sparks. Some of the times Melvin has sat in are mind-blowing. Just recently I heard that you’d played with Rufus Harley. I love him. He makes the bagpipe funky. People don’t believe me when I tell them that.

KD: He played with us on my birthday two years ago on my birthday in New York.

JamBase: In ways he’s sort of footnote in jazz but when I was a DJ his version of “Eight Miles High” or his trippy Afro centric material like “Kings” and “Queens” were staples on my show. Another one of those gems from Atlantic Records back in the early ‘70s.

KD: That was an amazing time. The guy who was producing all the stuff, Joel Dorn, was a complete genius. He was the guy who signed Rufus Harley, he signed Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He found all those guys and he managed to allow them to be themselves in that time.

JamBase: There doesn’t seem to be the same sort of, I’m trying to think of the right word, the sort of stewardship of musicians especially jazz musicians now that there used to be. The labels seem far too concerned with how many units you’ll move or how high a profile you’ll achieve.

KD: I’ve seen it for the last 20 years coming along. It’s so much harder to make a living now. Back in the day you could go out and do a gig and make $30 bucks three or four nights a week and survive because your rent wasn’t so astronomical. It’s just so hard for anybody to make enough money to survive that it effects everything.

JamBase: It’s like Warren Beatty says in Bulworth, something to the effect of how can so many talented people make such terrible movies. And he says it’s the money. Money turns everything to shit.

KD: Yeah, yeah. That’s such a great movie.

JamBase: He says this to a room full of Hollywood producers, directors and stars that he’s come to hit up for contributions. I find it telling that Beatty chose to film that scene given his stature in that world. It’s a statement about art in general in the modern age.

KD: That’s one of my favorite movies, that and Bamboozled.

JamBase: One last thing I picked up from The Bridge was a strong Fela vibe on a few tunes, “Freedom” and of course “Elephants” (which was written as a tribute to Fela and has been a cherished staple of KDTU live shows). Could you talk a little bit about what Fela means to you?

KD: He’s one of those people I listened to a long time ago when I was in college. This was before you could get his records commercially so it was like this amazing thing that you were lucky to hear. These people I was living with gave me one of his records when I left but it turned out that inside the sleeve was some other African music and for 20 years I didn’t hear him again. I had listened to that record Shakara so much that is was totally in me. So it’s been bubbling out of me for the last 20 years. Finally when they started re-releasing his stuff I realized what I’d been listening to in a new way. I’m a big Fela fan and I think it has a lot to do with what’s going on with dance music right now that is ready to be blown wide open.

Dennis Cook
Images by: Dino Perrucci
JamBase | San Francisco
Go See Live Music!

http://karldenson.com

[Published on: 8/30/02]

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