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Turn Me On: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe

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Saxophonist, singer, songwriter, flutist and bandleader Karl Denson has just completed his third tour with The Rolling Stones, whose touring lineup he joined in 2015, filling the shoes left by the late and legendary Bobby Keys.

Having once again spent the summer thrilling stadium-sized audiences by flawlessly executing the iconic sax solo that makes “Brown Sugar” one of the greatest songs of all time, Denson is now looking forward to getting back to work with his funky jam band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and his soul jazz outfit The Greyboy Allstars.

Earlier this year, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe released Gnomes and Badgers, their latest studio album that found Denson expanding his roles as a dynamic singer and trenchant lyricist. Fall 2019 finds Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe playing across North America leading up to playing New Year’s Eve at the Mission Ballroom in Denver, Colorado, with Leftover Salmon. The Greyboy Allstars are playing two Thanksgiving Weekend shows in Southern California as they prepare to release a new album in 2020.

Having just returned to his home in San Diego from concluding The Rolling Stones’ “No Filter” tour in Miami, Denson spoke over the phone to Rock Cellar, with whom he generously shared his insights into playing with the Stones, exploring his voice as a writer on Gnomes and Badgers and the evolution of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

When asked about the journey of exploring the range of psychedelic, soul, jazz, jam band and funk influences with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Denson reflected, “I think, over the years I have developed a palette for what’s funky. And what’s funky doesn’t have to do with what genre it comes from, necessarily. It just has to taste right. You know what I mean?

“And so, what I choose from is really just from my heart and what I would dance to. What would make me happy, if I’m at home vacuuming the floor. Like Howlin’ Wolf makes me happy. So there’s a lot of Howlin’ Wolf that goes into my thinking. Just because I listen to him a lot. There’s a lot of Yusef Lateef that goes into my thinking. A lot of Herbie Hancock. And a lot of Joni Mitchell, you know? And a lot of Fela. All those things are what I live inside of and try to have bubble up to the top of that I’m doing.”

Photo: Robbie Jeffers

Photo: Robbie Jeffers

The past few years have found Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe enjoying an increasingly prolific touring schedule and audiences that have been ever expanding, due in part to Denson’s gig with The Rolling Stones, as well as a variety of ways Denson and his projects have been continuously embraced by and interwoven with the jam band community, ranging from Denson’s recurring invitations to play among Phil Lesh and Friends, to next January marking Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe seventh straight year playing Jam Cruise.

When discussing how Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has evolved since its inception, Denson mused, “I’ve been putting this together forever now. The whole twenty years of Tiny Universe has been really just kind of dialing in the personnel and getting the right guys and the right sound. I got Zak Najor back, the original drummer for The Greyboy Allstars. He had stopped touring, and went back to school and got his degree. But I always told him, ‘If you ever want a job, you’re my favorite.’ So he finally came back to camp. Chris Stillwell has been playing with me forever, who’s also from the Greyboy Allstars. So we got three-fifths of The Greyboy Allstars.”

Of the remaining Universe denizens, Denson continued, “David Veith, my keyboard player, has been with me from the very beginning of Tiny Universe. Chris Littlefield, my trumpet player, has been with me for thirteen, fourteen years. D.J. Williams, my guitar player, has been here for about seven years now. Seth Freeman was the last addition on slide guitar. And I found him about three years ago. When I found Seth, it kind of solidified what we were doing. Because I had moving towards a two guitar setup. And I really wanted a slide player. Because that wanted that rock edge to sit on top of the band. But what it’s allowed me to do is kind of go back to my roots of just trying to play funk. And then the slide guitar puts the right amount of grind on it.”

On how the process of creating the latest Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe album Gnomes and Badgers differed from previous efforts, Denson shared, “This record was really all about writing lyrics and doing vocals. If you listen to our New Ammo record before this, there’s a lot of covers on that record. I’m trying to learn how to write lyrics and produce vocals and the whole thing. It’s a real learning curve that’s been over the last twenty years.

“When we started The Greyboy Allstars twenty-five years ago, we were doing just a couple of vocal tunes a set. Just enough to keep people interested in all of the instrumental stuff we were doing. When I started Tiny Universe, I upped that to about 50-50. Now I came to a point where I really needed more vocal tunes that were mine. Because a lot of the vocal tunes tended to be covers.”

Upon further digging into crafting some of the album’s standout songs, Denson continued, “‘What If You Knew,’ ‘Falling Down,’ those are real, kind of personal and ‘I’m Your Biggest Fan.’ Those are the three songs that are just kind of about me and my life. And how I’ve seen it and how I’ve felt. My own feelings about things. Whereas ‘Time to Pray’ and ‘Change My Way’ and ‘Can We Trade’ are more about the political arena and how I see the world. I really enjoy listening to this record. Because I feel like it’s a complete statement.”

“I’m Your Biggest Fan,” which Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe performs in a captivating 360’ music video that was filmed at Ardmore Music Hall, is one of the most memorable tracks on Gnomes and Badgers, largely for its presenting a satirical take on celebrity culture and hero worship that’s as danceable as it is self-aware.

“It’s just one of those stories that has happened to a million of us in different places and ways,” Denson said of his instant crowd-pleaser. “I was really trying to tell a story about my life and things that happened. I think the fact that the hook is so pointed, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m Your Biggest Fan.’ It’s fun for everybody. Because you’ve got the artist singing the song. And the audience realizes that it’s talking about them. But at the same time, I’m the same guy when I’m looking at my heroes. It’s really one of those songs that I think everybody sees themselves in. The first time people hear it, they immediately gravitate to it and go, ‘Oh, I like that.’ Because I’ve felt that way before.’ ‘I’m not crazy, I’m Your Biggest Fan.’”

Days after a triumphant conclusion to an unfortunately delayed Rolling Stones tour, Denson was happy to look back on how he ended up on the road with the greatest band in the world and share a sense of some of what he experienced from deep inside the eye of rock and roll’s biggest circus.

“God Bless Lenny Kravitz!” Denson said in praise of his former boss, with whom he played before forming Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. “He and Mick are very good friends. So they were having dinner, five years ago. Mick mentioned that Bobby Keys was sick. And that he’s going to be looking for a new sax player. So Lenny immediately threw my hat in the ring and gave me a call the next day. He sent them a couple of tunes from his records. And I sent them a few things that I thought would be good calling cards. A few days later, he called back and said ‘Mick’s going to play it for the rest of the band.’ And they liked it. And the rest is history.”

When asked about what aspects of performing in a Rolling Stones tour might surprise audience members, Denson revealed, “I’ve come in on the calm, smooth waters part of their career. I hear stories about what it was like ten years ago, fifteen years ago, twenty years ago. When they were really partying and not getting along and all that stuff. Right now it’s really fun. Because the four of those guys are really having a great time playing this amazing catalogue together.

“The two things that strike me with the Rolling Stones is one, their work ethic. They really work hard. It kind of blows my mind, that at their age, when we rehearse, we do five-hour rehearsals. They don’t really do anything else. Everybody around is going and getting coffee and tea and eating. The four of those guys, they generally stay put in that room and rehearse for five hours. Mick literally sings four hours every day, getting himself in shape for the tour. They don’t really mess around. It’s pretty insane.

“And then I think the other thing that can’t be overstated is Mick’s freaking stamina. The guy is fucking Iron Man. This heart thing that he just went through, they we’re getting him in shape and he felt a little thing. They took him to the doctor and they said, ‘Oh. This is a big deal. We need to get this fixed right away.’ They fixed it. Bam. He’s right back there, man. The last show of this tour in Miami, it was hot. I was in the back, sitting there when [the horns]weren’t playing. I was back there sitting in front of an air conditioning fan. Then halfway through the show, the air got thick, and I was thinking I was having trouble breathing. I go up there and I watch him and it’s just like it’s nothing. It’s something we won’t see again in our lifetime. Guaranteed. What he does is just unbelievable.”

After a fall headlining tour with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Denson is very much looking forward to playing as part of Leftover Salmon’s “30 Years Under the Big Top!” show in Denver, Colorado on New Year’s Eve. Of what audiences might expect, Denson teased, “We’re not planning that far ahead in terms of material. But I toured with Leftover Salmon, back in probably in 1999. It was me and my old trumpet player Carlos Washington who actually toured with those guys. I’ve been a fan ever since. We’re good friends. We stay in touch. I love playing bluegrass. Because it’s kind of the closest thing to playing jazz in the scene that we’re in. So I would expect some good bluegrass battles with a saxophone and a banjo.”

Looking into 2020, Denson previewed, “Me and my writing partner Matt Burke are planning on starting a podcast. A Gnomes and Badgers podcast. Partly political. Partly cooking. Partly music. Just whatever we think of doing. That’s in the works. And then I got a bunch of tunes. I’m hoping to do some really fun collaborations. I think next year, as opposed to trying to put out a whole record, I’m going to do the songs one at a time.

“In this age of Spotify, I think it’s probably the most prudent way to go at it. It’s going to allow me to connect with some of my friends and heroes and do some writing together. So that’s the next plan.”

To turn yourself on to Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe visit @karldensonstinyuniverse on Facebook or Instagram. Go to karldenson.com for all things Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and go to http://greyboyallstars.com to buy tickets to the Thanksgiving weekend shows in at the Belly Up in Solana Beach and Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles.

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