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Saxophone colossus The immense journey of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe

by Whitney Youngs

In the late 1960s, saxophonist Bobby Keys made his debut with the Rolling Stones on “Live with Me,” a song recorded on the album Let It Bleed and in 1982, he joined the touring band (for a second time) and remained until 2014, the year of his death from liver cancer, just weeks away from his 71st birthday. So when it inevitably came time to fill Keys’ vacant position, Lenny Kravitz, a friend of Mick Jagger, recommended his former sideman, Karl Denson.

“The stories that the guys tell about [Keys] are so awesome, and my one regret with the gig is never meeting him,” said Denson who replaced Keys. “I’m a really a big fan of [Keys] and I have been since I was a kid. I was around 19 or 20 and people would throw his name around when I’d be playing at clubs, so I did a little research and fell in love with his artistry in general.”

Denson played on seven songs off of Kravitz’s debut album, Let Love Rule and four songs on the next recording, Mama Said, released in 1991. Born and bred in Santa Ana, California, Denson remained a member of Kravitz’s band through the tour to support the 1993 release of Are You Gonna Go My Way, at which point Kravitz bid farewell to a horn section and Denson pivoted away from rock ‘n’ roll and dug deeper into jazz and funk. By 1994, Denson had recruited the founding members of The Greyboy Allstars—Elgin Park, Aaron Redfield, Chris Stillwell and Robert Walter—a San Diego-based funk quintet that would record six studio albums, the most recent in 2020, Como De Allstars, the first in seven years. The Allstars initially performed as the house band to DJ Greyboy.

“This album is a record based on the fact that we have been playing these songs for years and just never released anything like it,” Denson said. “So, we were in my studio during the lockdown livestreaming stuff and this kind of came out of it.”

Aside from the saxophone, Denson plays the flute, sings, and writes his own songs, so during his time with Kravitz and the early years of the Allstars, he recorded five solo albums, Blackened Red Snapper, Herbal Turkey Breast, Chunky Pecan Pie, Baby Food, and The D Stands for Diesel.

In the early 2000s, Denson, now 65, stepped away from the Allstars to head up two ensembles, the funk, jazz septet, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (KDTU) and a stripped-down version of this group, the Karl Denson Trio (saxophone, organ and drums). The trio intended to revitalize jazz classics. Among DKTU’s five albums, The Bridge stands out as a seminal work of funk and jazz, while its latest Gnomes & Badgers (2019), is a musical commentary on the divisive state of America today. No matter the album, Denson is known for his infectious grooves that compel listeners to move in one way or another.

“I consider myself a dance artist,” said Denson. “As a jazz artist, I like the idea that jazz was always written as dance music. The origin of jazz is dance music so that is really something that I hold onto all of the time. So, anything I do comes from that angle, and if we stray from it, it’s on purpose.”

In the spirit of musical homage, Denson organized three separate tours of tribute shows that covered the music of the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, and most recently a tour entitled, “A Diesel Insane: The Music of David Bowie.”

“Bowie was just a great composer,” explained Denson. “I like Bowie down to the last song but my favorite two songs are ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ and ‘Station to Station,’ which I think are just incredible compositions.”

Although Denson is a flutist, saxophonist and singer, he primarily identifies as a songwriter and connects most deeply with a song’s structure.

“I think of myself as a saxophonist—that’s what my part is in the music—but really I like to consider myself a composer,” added Denson. “So, for me, my favorite sax player is Wayne Shorter because of his compositions. And from there it’s like Horace Silver […] so for me, I like good musicianship but I prefer great writers and great songs.”

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays BeachLife May 15.


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