You Gotta Move – A Conversation with KARL DENSON

Karl Denson is arguably one of the hardest working musicians on the scene, successfully building a name for himself over the last 2 plus decades.  His early days -circa the late 80s / early 90s -found him playing sax for Lenny Kravitz, which opened a lot of doors for his own career and gave him exposure to the music industry and life on the road.  After his years with Kravitz, he worked with trombonist, Fred Wesley (James Brown, Maceo Parker Band, Parliament Funkadelic) and went on to release a series of jazz records on his own.  Then, as  jazz began to “turn soft”, Denson needed to forge his own path further.  [This is not unlike how Skerik, who grew up playing sax in Seattle alongside Kenny G, went on to start a project called the Dead Kenny-Gs, which he refers to as a “free-jazz version of The Melvins“]

Having grown up in Orange County, CA, Karl linked up with DJ Greyboy in San Diego and the duo began fusing together acid jazz grooves and beats.  By 1995, the project had acquired guitarist Elgin Park (aka Michael Andrews), organist/keyboardist Robert Walter, bassist Chris Stillwell, and drummer Zak Najor.  This marked the birth of the now-legendary Greyboy Allstars, as well as their classic album, West Coast Boogaloo (feat. Fred Wesley).

Always prolific and ever evolving, Karl thrived in several more projects, began fronting Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, and has continuously popped up and found homes with everybody and anybody in the jamband circuit over the years.  His resume is a mile long and, most recently, he’s performed with the likes of such acts as Slightly Stoopid and none other than PUBLIC ENEMY!  Every great festival that I’ve been to has included some incarnation of Karl Denson; whether it’s a late night, post-Phish Halloween show, KDTU set, or just the saxophonist jamming with a seemingly unlikely bluegrass band – he is up to his eyeballs in music!  Through it all, one of the most impressive things about this man is the balance that he maintains between heavy touring and being a father/husband.  He specifically structures his tours to maintain this balance and one can tell from being in his presence that he truly knows how to keep all of his passions equally in check.

Once I heard that Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was going to be covering the Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers in it’s entirety, with additional guitar work by New Orleans slide-guitar extraordinaire, Anders Osborne , I knew that Seattle and the rest of the cities on this tour were in for a treat.  Not only did the band absolutely tear apart the Stones album with deep heart and soul, but the KDTU second set revealed the ever evolving nature of Karl’s own music.  The show was incredible and we even got the rare opportunity to ask Denson a few questions between sets.

-Joel Ott

JOEL OTT: So how’s the tour going?

KARL DENSON: We’re having a great time… It’s going really well, the crowds are loving it.  It’s a great record, you know, it’s fun to play.

JO: How did you choose Sticky Fingers? I mean the Stones have a lot of material…

KD: We were just kind of- we started with Aqualung.  We were gonna do Jethro Tull.  And then we thought, “you know what? A lotta people aren’t gonna know that record… like, really well” .  So, we said, “Ok, let’s go with the Stones” and then, we just started going through all their records and that (Sticky Fingers) had a bunch of tunes that I really liked… You know, “Sway”; I’ve always loved that track.  And then we’d already done ‘Can’t you hear me knocking,” you know, a year ago, and it just seemed like the right one.

JO: Well, it definitely works!

KD: We’re having fun

JO: Anders?  How did that all come about?

KD: We needed somebody to play slide… You know, we needed a slide guy and somebody who could sing, to share the vocal duty.  And he and I have been trying to do stuff together; we sat in on each other’s gigs a couple times in the last couple years, so this is like our first chance to really do something together, so… he was kind of a natural choice.

JO: Brian Jordan has been with the Tiny Universe for quite a while – what happened to him?

KD: He decided he wanted to do his own thing.  And you know, I think with our schedule being kind of broken, as it is-  You know, like I did a lot of this summer with Slightly Stoopid, so we kinda had some nice big breaks in the schedule… I think it gave him enough momentum on his own where he was like,”I think I should stick with my thing.”  So, he’s just doing his thing… and DJ Waynes was a natural choice; we’ve played with him a few times and I’ve always wanted to play with him.  You know, like he sits in and ALWAYS impressed, so it’s kind of a cool thing.

JO: You’ve mentioned before how, early on in Grey Boy Allstars, you’d put ideas out or people would put ideas out there (in the context of grey boy) and they either liked it or not, but it was like real straight and to the point –

KD: With the All Stars? Haha, yeah they’re the style council.

JO: So I was wondering how that’s affected your growth and development.

KD: You know what, it was a really good opportunity and still is; we still do things together.  It’s a great sounding board from the standpoint of… really, kind of fleshing out ideas AND knowing when it’s cool or not.   Sometimes there’s things that you do that might work for this band (but) they don’t work for the All Stars, or there are some things that are just like,”that’s a great idea, but not necessarily applicable to my audience.”  So, that’s the cool thing about having those guys around – they just refuse to play anything.

AMY SALVADENA (recording the interview): Brutally honest?

KD: They refuse to play anything they don’t like. They’ll actually, you can force them to do it, but they’ll realize – this isn’t going to work *laughs*.

JO: You were talking about Jam Cruise and how it gets better and better every year, but you don’t want to have any expectations (“I don’t want to say it’s gonna be better next year, but the way it’s been going…”,) so I was wondering about expectations.  I try not to have expectations myself, because I feel like it sets you up for disappointment, or whatever, and I think it’s a good way to go through life. So, I’m wondering; does that point of view apply at all to your music career or your life?

KD: You know, to a certain extent.  I’m not one to go into a situation and create… I don’t create situations I’m normally one to go in and see what it is and then, you know, try to make the best of it.  I do find that people that have lots of expectations tend to get disappointed and then bum everyone else out around them, so I think it’s a more healthy way to look at life and kind of keep it fresh.  You can have expectations, I think it’s just, you know, there’s that choice of whether or not to be happy.  Along with that, you know people that make a lot of expectations tend to allow themselves to be unhappy when their expectations are let down and I disagree with that philosophically.

JO: Jazz, I want to talk about jazz…when you started playing, it was early on… I mean, how do you feel like jazz was then, how is jazz now, and how does that relate to the whole jam band scene, which has sort of evolved into this big thing now…

KD: You know what, I’ve always been a jazz head, but I think there was a point where I realized that what I really liked about jazz was its connection to dance music… And so, I tend to stay on that path.

*loud laughing in background, we all laugh*

I think that’s led me away from jazz, traditional jazz to a certain extent, where I think that spirit of what it was when it started in New Orleans is maybe more applicable to hip hop right now, than it is to trad(itional) jazz.  You know, I liked John Coltrane as a kid, so I listened to a lot of avante garde jazz and I thought that’s what I wanted to do for a long time.  And so, as a result, it kept me open to a lot of things… and, so what jazz is; I really think it’s a spirit, not a style of music… And, you know, I look at cats like MMW (and) to me is like, I like what they do- I mean, in terms of being jazzy.  And I like what Roy Hargrove does… but, I don’t like the purest element that doesn’t allow for new thought.

JO: What about the connection with jambands?

KD: Well, I think the jamband scene is a scene that’s all about improvisation, which I think very closely connects it to the jazz scene.  I used to always say that I thought High Sierra (music festival) was one of the best jazz festivals of the year, because you would find that bands like MMW would be there, or Skerik would be there, and, you know, all these weird projects… Bela Fleck would be there, Jacob Fred Jazz Odysey would end up there, and it’s all this weird music.  And then, you have a bunch of blues artists and soul artists and bluegrass artists… Bluegrass – to me – is jazzy; it’s all about improvisation.  So, I think the jamband scene -for me- is a natural place to be, in terms of playing jazz music.

JO: Jamcruise.  Convince us.  I mean  -it sounds awesome- tell us why we should go.

KD: Well, I mean… you’re on a boat!

*we all laugh*

You’ve got all the bands you like on a boat.  You’re stuck on a boat with a bunch of bands and it’s pretty amazing and I think that one thing that Jamcruise has done that nobody else does to this extent, is we created the “jam room”.  The after hours jams that go on in the jam room are pretty epic, because you’ve got, you know, 20 bands on a boat, they’re stuck out there.  After everything’s done and it’s 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, everybody heads to the jam room, and everybody goes on stage and just plays – and it’s pretty insane.  So, I think it’s a really good party, and it’s on a boat!

Our interview was then cut short, because Karl had to return to the stage for a set of KDTU material.  One didn’t really know what to expect after such a powerful cover of the entire Sticky Fingers album.

Anyone familiar with The Stones release would naturally anticipate a stretched-out sax jam towards the end of the classic, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and, though they ran through it really well, the jam didn’t stray too far from the original.  What really took me by surprise though, was the next track, “You Gotta Move,” which featured extended slide-guitar work by Anders Osborne over the rest of the band (we’re talking about a full horn section, keys, another guitar, and drums).  At some point, I remember turning to my friend and saying something like, “Wow, this DEFINITELY does not sound exactly like the album.”  Sure enough, upon checking later, the band had taken a two-minute blues tune and jammed the hell out of it with emotion and power, for a screaming seven minutes!  The other truly noteworthy jam, most unexpectedly, popped out of “Sister Morphine”, which is a really slow and mellow song, as the title would imply.  As soon as the lyrics were “out of the way,” the drums kicked into double-time and, all of a sudden, the room was in a funk-infused, trancey dance party that lasted around ten minutes longer than the album version.  We were getting a taste of exactly what solar system the Tiny Universe is jamming in these days.  Of course, they also nailed the classics: “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “Dead Flowers”.

I’ve seen Karl many times and, although I’m not familiar enough with his material to really get into the names of the songs, I know that I can always count on a couple of things: the music always sounds fresh and I am always gonna dance my ass off.  This second set was no exception.  While they ran through some of their more composed material, they didn’t waste a lot of time before getting right back into that realm “Sister Morphine” had brought us to, and we had a full on dance party for the entire set.  There was a “synthy” feel that kept coming on in waves and it was something that struck me in particular about their current direction.  As far as I’m aware, this is definitely something new, in terms of their jamming style. The set thrived  with energy and gave each band member their own moment(s) to really shine.

If you have a chance, get up offa your thing and go see Karl D!  After the tour he played a few dates with Fred Wesley and the Greyboy Allstars, covering their original debut in its entirety to wrap up the year in Southern CA -including a stop in the Bay area for NYE– before heading out “on a boat” for Jamcruise 10.  The Sticky Fingers tour “with special guests” (including Anders Osborne) will continue with their East Coast leg launching at the beginning of February.  This is not to be missed folks!


CLICK HERE for tour dates.


SET ONE (Sticky Fingers)


Joel Ott

Joel Ott currently lives and works in Seattle.

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