As the Tiny Universe prepares to go on for the first of two nights at the San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, drummer John Staten's hands are in constant motion, sticks tapping out a precursor to the jungle rumble to come. The table backstage, unsuspecting walls and his thighs get a pounding. Like the rest of KDTU, he's itching to get out there and show the world what a truly badass combo can do on a Friday night. That sense of confidence, that bristling readiness permeates every aspect of the band. For whatever they have been in the past, Karl Denson and his rogues are deadly serious about showing everyone there's more to them than anyone could ever guess.
"We're trying to keep the feeling open, not close ourselves in and feel like we're relegated to this or that," states Denson. "We're really making use of anything we can to make it good."
Karl Denson by Tony Stack
When I tell him I hear the whole African Diaspora floating around in their universe, he smiles but he's clearly skeptical of compliments, always aware there's always more to do. The challenge of juggling so many elements does come up though. "That's why we call it the Tiny Universe," continues Denson. "I think that's probably what you're hearing and what other people are hearing is a more integrated sound now. We spent the last couple of years really trying to digest all those styles. Now, we can move from one to another smoothly, where it used to be you never knew what you were going to get from a set because we'd go from a boogaloo tune to a funk tune to a jazz tune. It wasn't congruent. All of the sudden you felt like we'd just changed gears. Now, by everybody understanding what I was trying to get at by forcing it to be so diverse we're able to move in and out of styles a lot smoother."
Guitarist Brian Jordan jumps in, "I see that shift as incorporating more modern genres into the mix. Before now we were primarily playing groove-jazz from the late sixties and early seventies, while the original tunes were also written in a similar manor. So we are still keeping the groove element while incorporating modern groove genres and focusing more on songwriting as well."
As their last studio effort The Bridge indicated, there's a much stronger emphasis on vocals in a soul-funk vein these days. It's always easier to do the thing you're already good at rather than improve a lesser skill, something that's always demoralizing in the first few steps, but they have made great strides this year and it shows in their live sets.
Brian Jordan of KDTU
By Michael Weintrob
"We're trying to step it up, and with Brian singing now we've put a lot of time into working on vocals," explains Denson. "At one point we said, 'Let's tune this thing up.' We're instrumentalists that are just learning to be singers. It's hard to put that kind of emphasis on it and practice vocals every day because you'd rather spend the whole time practicing on your instrument and getting ready to solo."
Jordan more and more has been stepping into the spotlight, singing lead vocals and guiding the band through his own compositions. The kinetic crowd reaction both nights of their late September Fillmore run highlighted that this is something fans are digging in the extreme. Brian tells us, "I think it brings more dimensions to the band. Karl is definitely a very gifted individual in his own rite, but as other members of the band, including myself, begin to contribute more, it just gives the band that much more depth. As a result, I think each member of the band feels that much more invested in the band."
There's a gracious tenor to these group dynamics, a palpable sense of respect and commitment that comes through in the notes.
"First of all I feel blessed to play with such a great group of musicians. Each guy is a great player in his own rite," states Jordan. "David Veith (keyboards) has something that many novice and intermediate players lack; that's taste. He has a great way of approaching a tune and adding what's best for the tune. That comes from experience and being open to many musical styles. As well, he's got chops for soloing and he builds great solos. Ron Johnson (bass) has definitely grown a lot as a musician since he has been in KDTU and continues to grow constantly. He is always coming up with something new to add to the music. John Staten is monster of a drummer. He's young, but maturing quickly. He is a force to be reckoned with on the drums at any level of professionalism. Honestly, I think he scares a lot of other drummers because he is so good. Chris Littlefield (trumpet) will take you on a fun and interesting melodic journey. He is the kind player that will inspire you to play something cool and intelligent. He's a great player who's got skills and knowledge. And last but definitely not least, is the man of hour, Karl Denson. This man has got chops for days. He leaves audiences bedazzled on a regular basis by his skill and command of the instrument. As well, he is a great bandleader. Being a good bandleader is not an easy job as I have recently found out as I have started my own band. That just gives me that much more respect for him."
Chris Littlefield of KDTU
By Jaci Downs