KARL DENSON'S TINY UNIVERSE CUT THE FAT

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.


Karl Denson by Tony Stack
"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."

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."


Brian Jordan of KDTU
By Michael Weintrob
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.

"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.


Chris Littlefield of KDTU
By Jaci Downs
"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."

 
It's frustrating that black people are of out of touch with their history. We're all about the history of black music. It's mostly white audiences listening to black music and it's really just a cultural and economic barrier that black people have allowed themselves to be caught up in. |--Karl Denson
 
Photo: ©2004 Mark Davidson

KDTU has spent the better part of this year writing new tunes, cleaning things up and clarifying things with each other, which has revealed nuances that only happen when a group has this kind of conversation. When asked if the band is starting to sound like the music he hears in his head, Karl states, "Yeah, I'd say we're 75-percent there. I just told the guys the other day at soundcheck, 'We know the music's good now so it's really going to boil down to the solos.' It's going to boil down to everybody pushing their solos up to the compositional level of the music. Even though we're moving towards things being vocally based I still really push that we're a jazz band. That's something I want the guys to always stress for themselves; to play good jazz."

Live one can hear that the solos are more concise but they're saying more in that little space, something especially clear in Karl's solos, where he goes in, says what needs saying and then gets out. "Cut the fat" has become a recent band motto.

The modern influence of nu-soul, trip-hop, rap and other flavors of electronic music culture are poking their head up in the new compositions.


Elgin Park by Tony Stack
"Yes because I like that stuff. My drummer will tell you I'm all about new beats because I think that's the heart of it," explains Denson. "Elgin (Park), the guitarist in the Greyboy Allstars, he's a great producer and we were talking about this. He said, 'In dance music a beats old in about a month.' I love that about it. We're always going to be jazz guys, trying to play our instruments better, but as far as being influenced by this music, well, I love black music. I love all kinds of music but I really love my history as a black artist so I'm always interested in what's going on there."

The Tiny Universe doesn't draw the line in the sand like the Marsalis clan, who often make proclamations about what constitutes legitimate black music and what doesn't. Denson is quick to defend his fellow jazzmen.


KDTU :: ©2004 Mark Davidson
"I think those guys have their niche, Wynton especially - Branford likes everything, the last time I saw him we were both sitting in with the Allman Brothers - but in order to play that music as amazingly as those guys play it you kind of have to draw a line in the sand and say 'I'm not going to go over there.' In order to play that music as amazingly as they play it you need to force everything else out and be like one of those guys in the '40s and '50s. They didn't have the option of hearing a bunch of other stuff and deciding to play this or play that. Jazz was the music of the time and that's why it was so amazing. I think you need to be a bit of a monk and cloister yourself away to play be-bop the way those guys play it."

Brian Jordan explicates some of his own influences, most of which one can hear filtering into the mix.

"Prince is definitely a big influence. In general I am heavily influenced by funk and soul music when it comes to the feel and structure of a song. Though I love Afro-beat and classic rock as well. In my view, many of the recordings of the sixties and seventies are un-equaled in production and arrangement quality. Today, it just seems a lot more rare to find music with as much care and attention put into sound integrity and artistic detail. In general I am pretty open to whatever sounds good, regardless of genre. Good music is good music."


Karl Denson by Tony Stack
Karl continues, discussing the influence of outside music on KDTU, "A lot! I listen to music all the time. A lot of the time it's just trying to figure out what inspires the direction you're going in. Sometimes I'll write a tune and there's some other stuff back there that inspired it and I'll go on a search. It might be an old Motown tune or it might be an old jazz tune but I'll go on a search to find out where that idea came from so I can maybe grab a few more things from it. It might be a Bjork tune and I realize it's how the drums are on it. Then I can tell the guys, 'This is where this came from' so they can check it out as a reference."

Getting any group to incorporate all these threads into a single garment is a challenge, and a new one for Jordan, who's just started taking the reins a bit in their concerts and on their forthcoming studio album.


Brian Jordan of KDTU
By Haig Assadourian
"The biggest challenge is dealing with my own uniqueness, while trying to convey the feel of my songs to the band. I tend to be very specific about what I want in my songs. While my songs can sometimes seem very cut and dry on the surface, I feel it's the abstract things like feel and intent that really push my music. As well, things like rhythmic and melodic counterpoint are important to me. Unfortunately, many players don't have much of a concept of that."

"Being a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards), being schooled as well as self taught, I have my own set of influences and experiences which range from soul music, Afro-beat, to punk-rock and classic rock, and much, much more. My songs tend to display elements of my various experiences and influences. So saying to a musician that, 'You're playing the right notes but could you play it with some rock and roll attitude.' Or, 'These notes need to be played exactly as written because the concept of the rhythm is very strict as in Afro-beat and that's what really makes this beat work with the song.' It's conveying these more abstract concepts of music which can't be written and that might not really be understood without direct experience. That's been the biggest challenge. Those are the things that I tend to like best about music. For example, the unique things that make reggae, reggae or that make classic country, classic. It's not really just about the notes for me. A computer can play notes now. For example, take the song 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' and put the sheet music in front of a classical orchestra. Is it going to 'rock' hard like The Clash? It's probably not likely. For me, it's about how to create a feel, a vibe or a mood. So, the biggest challenge has been trying to convey those types of elements to the band as we incorporate a couple of my songs into the band, because everyone else has their own set of influences which may not include mine."

 
We have done the groove-jazz thing. Groove-jazz is fun, but now I think it's time to prove ourselves as good song craftsmen, in order to take it to the next level.

--Brian Jordan

 
Photo by Haig Assadourian

If there's any one linking element to their sound it's the drum. No matter what they are playing underneath there is always rhythm. "We ARE a dance band!" exclaims Denson. "I'm a closet drummer. I would LOVE to be a drummer. If I could be a proficient drummer I would stop playing the sax tomorrow." When I mention it's clear he loves his cowbell this elicits a deep laugh from Karl.


KDTU by Jaci Downs
"I just finished my studio and as soon as I get home the first thing I'm going to do is set up my drums in my little drum booth and I'll be out there banging every day. My goal is to learn a beat a day. When I get to about ten of them I'll stop and hone in on them but I want a vocabulary of about ten beats between the jazz things and the hip-hop things and rock things. Then I'll be the happiest man on Earth!"

One of the haymakers one doesn't see coming is KDTU's ability to transform rock into a slinkier cousin, something they demonstrated at the Fillmore with a salacious cover of Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Under Foot" that raised temperatures in the house.

"It was actually Karl's idea to cover it," states Brian. "When he first suggested it I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about it working with this band. As well, I didn't think the song was as strong of a Zeppelin cover. I would have picked 'Kashmir' or 'Good Times Bad Times.' The first time we played the song was at the High Sierra Music Festival in the late night music hall. Honestly, I thought it just sounded okay. I still wasn't convinced. It was the move to really make the song our own and not try to play it like the original recording that really made it work for us. The Meters inspired funk groove underneath and stripped down guitar part during the verses made it sound more like the Tiny Universe. Hence, you could say that it was a move be ourselves while playing the song and not trying to play it like Led Zeppelin playing the song."


Karl Denson by Jaci Downs
One thing you won't find at a lot of Tiny Universe shows is a black audience. While hesitant to bring it up with Denson, I found he was nakedly honest and not a little insightful about the matter.

"I think it's just economics. I think black people take what they're given as opposed to having the freedom to go out and explore. I don't think they explore as much as white audiences do," explains Karl. "You end up in this weird place where older black people listen to smooth jazz and younger black people listen to hip-hop and that's kinda all that's there. They get it off the radio and that's as far as they go with it. So, I think it's that and the economic situation of who can afford to go out to clubs. When we're in certain places there are fans that will follow us around to every show that's within 200 miles. I think economically that's not going to happen from a black perspective."

"It's frustrating to know that black people are kind of out of touch with their history. We're kinda all about the history of black music. It's the same argument that Wynton Marsalis had with the rebirth of jazz in the '80s. I heard him complain about it a lot. It's mostly white audiences listening to black music and it's really just a cultural and economic barrier that black people have allowed themselves to be caught up in. There used to be all these black bands--(pause)--it also has to do with black people's instinctual creativity based on dance music and there's a direct connection there. We're not cutting edge dance music so there's gonna be a gap there because what's being created with the kids in the hip-hop era is all dance, to a certain extent. There's also a gap between what our history is and what's going on right now that's a little tragic."

There's a growing super hero vibe to the Tiny Universe, myth making that expands on the stature of the band in graphics and philosophy, starting with the introduction of the Orb Man.


Karl Denson :: Orb Man
"I'm a real comic book head. I'm a full Marvel kid so I've always had this whole super hero idea that's now based around the band," Denson tells us. "We finally got the design work done and Orb Man is the first character. Then, I've got four of the six guys in the band with their super powers done. Eventually we'll have all the characters done and I'm working with some other people on the idea of an actual comic book."

"I stopped reading comics about ten years ago. When I was with Lenny Kravitz I subscribed to about ten different titles and I would wait to pick 'em up so that I could read four issues in a row rather than wait until the next month. I'd take them on a plane and flying to Europe would be such fun."

In addition to his role in the Tiny Universe, Denson has also reactivated the legendary Greyboy Allstars. He explains what's next for that project.

"We did it and I told the guys I didn't want to run the steam out of it so we worked on a bigger plan. The plan now is for the Allstars to not go out again until we have a new record. So, we're going into the studio over the next three to four months to hash things out for late 2005 or 2006 that will be organized and have some push. It's a great band and we all totally dig each other and like playing together. It's fun to get back together but in terms of quality control without having a new thing and putting some real time into it we'll just blow the steam out of it."

So, what does the future hold for KDTU, what will be the thing or things that push them up to the proverbial next level?

Brian Jordan states, "Good songwriting. We have done the groove-jazz thing. Groove-jazz is fun, but now I think it's time to prove ourselves as good song craftsmen, in order to take it to the next level."

Their illustrious leader explains, "We're reorganizing on all levels right now to find things that actually function and paying good attention to them. That's the rule for us; to really pay attention to everything we're doing and then from there making a great record. I want our next studio album to be one that people say 'Have you heard it? Wow!' We're putting it on everyone's shoulders right now to unite and get it down."

Dennis Cook
JamBase | California
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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe is featured in the JamBase 2005 Wall Calendar!


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