A FEW MINUTES WITH… Karl Denson
By Don Wilcock
“I went to school and learned how to play, write music and all that stuff. Then I went back out into the world and realized that it was all about girls.”
Karl Denson was the right guy to replace the late Bobby Keyes as the Rolling Stones’ sax player in 2014. And he’s the perfect act to open the 2017 Alive at Five concert series in Albany’s Corning Preserve on Thursday evening (June 8). An academic that nevertheless creates music from the lower chakra as much as from his cranium, he’s a jazzer who drove away from high school in the mid-’70s in a low rider Camaro playing Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery blowing out his car speakers at 110 db’s.
Last month he performed with Phil Lesh at the Capital Theater. Last year his “Running with the Diesel” Tour had him and his band the Tiny Universe cranking out covers of Prince, the White Stripes and Beastie Boys. Diesel is his nickname and “Running with the Diesel,” he says, is kind of a play on Van Halen’s Runnin’ with the Devil.
Imagine a clear-headed Sly & the Family Stone with an open-ended love for all kinds of music – as long it permeates the crowd with a powerful sense of funk. That’s Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
Three years in, Denson loves playing on the Stones’ “plush” tours with their “insane catalog.” He sees a Keith Richards the public can’t begin to comprehend. “You know what? I feel like we have a connection,” he confides. “It’s still budding over three years, but half of it is just understanding what he’s saying. It’s like talking to a Jamaican or something. But yeah, he’s all about music. So, we had a couple of good hangs, but I haven’t been able to hang with him on the complete musical level. That would be super fun. He’s pretty amazing. I can tell he really loves music. Like he loves all the intricacies of it. So, that whole band is really amazing. I don’t get to pick their brain as much as I’d like to ’cause I know what’s in there.”
An African American who has a European attitude about jazz and its connection to pop, soul and rock and roll, Denson flies above the clichés of each. “I graduated in ’75, and I was lucky enough that my older brother who was five years older than me became a jazz head when I was about 12 or 13 years old. So, I had this really great nexus. I grew up listening to Motown and soul. Through my peers I listened to Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, the Ohio Players and all that stuff, and then my brother introduced Herbie Hancock, Freddy Hubbard, John Coltrane and Eddie Harris into my midst.
“Out of that I grew into Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. So, I was pretty wide open by the time I went to college. I felt like that’s part of why I’ve been as confused musically as I am. I just like everything. I did not like cool jazz at all. So, I avoided that like the plague. When Lee Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton hit the scene, I was completely out. I started listening to punk as sort of a protest vote.”
Tiny Universe has been called the ultimate jam band, but frankly I think that’s an insult to his wider, more informed world view of music. “Things just come and go, man. You get phases. You get periods, and there’s a period where in a certain way it was almost dumber before because you could get away with more nonsense.
“Now, you’ve got to make a better, clearer statement of what you’re doing to make a dent in this thing. So, I enjoy just playing the music. I think maybe the Grateful Dead influence has taken a little too much of a bite out of the whole scene, but at the same time you’ve got the jamtronica scene that happened. Like now you’ve got a resurgence of more of a punk scene, which I dig, that is happening with Snarky Puppy. So, it’s’ awesome to see. The good stuff just stays around, and if it’s not strong, it goes the way of the buffalo.”
So, what’s he and his band going to play in Albany? “I have no idea. Right now, I’m playing more blues, so there’s gonna be some blues things, funky blues back into a soul-jazz thing just so I can play the blues. I’m working my way around a bunch of things now. Like I’m trying to write more in a rock and roll vein, and I just got this great new guitar player a year ago, Seth Freeman. I’m starting to find the perfect balance of those two things (rock and roll and soul) like a rock and roll blues aesthetic while still making it really funky. So yeah, we’re just kind of messing around, man.”