Three to Get Ready

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
“A lot of people equate jazz with swing,” says tall-standing bandleader Karl Denson, speaking about the current state of jazz and improvisational music in the country. “That’s jazz to them. But to me, it goes way deeper than that. It had little to do with academia and more to do with people moving their asses. It was about people dancing and having fun.”

Dancing, fun times, positive vibes, and musical expression are at the heart of what the virtuosic tenor saxophonist and woodwind player is all about. Those sentiments have guided the San Diego-based musician through several band projects, included his latest effort, K3: The Karl Denson Trio.

“To me, jazz is the black influence on American music,” Denson says. “That part continues to modulate all the time. In the late ’60s and early 1970s, you had Lee Morgan’s ‘Sidewinder’ and the boogaloo thing starting, you had Dizzie Gillespie adding bits of Latin jazz. And Miles [Davis], who was all about the migration of black thought, looked around and went, ‘You know, James Brown and Sly Stone are hipper than me.’ He looked at that as a continuation of the jazz spirit. It was an eventuality that it was going to tighten up and go in that direction. Now, you have this whole melding of jazz and punk and soul that we call hip-hop. I think it’s alive and well. I don’t thing there’s been any decrease in interest or in vitality. Most people expect it to come from the jazz community, but I hear just as much good jazz coming from the jam band community.”

Denson grew up in California surrounded by music and officially began his musical pursuits at age 13. His brothers and sisters listened to soul, Motown, and funk. Everybody seemed to play an instrument at some point. His older brother played sax, so he picked right up on it and dove into the jazz world.

By the early ’80s, Denson was dabbling with free jazz, but didn’t pursue playing it because it just “wasn’t happening.” He toured with Lenny Kravitz during the early ’90s and contributed tenor sax lines to Kravitz’s Let Love Rule and Mama Said albums. In 1993, he collaborated with DJ Greyboy, formed Greyboy Allstars, and quickly released an acid jazz single called “Unwind Your Mind.” Simultaneously, he churned out four acoustic jazz albums for the German-based Minor Music label.

By the late-’90s, the Greyboy Allstars were busy playing their distinctive mix of boogaloo, funk, and modern jazz across North America in front of sold-out venues. After the Allstars disbanded in 1998, Denson reloaded with a new progressive group called Tiny Universe. They also become a formidable force on the jam band circuit scene.

“I’m an old-school jazz guy who’s been playing jazz festivals for 10 years, but I think what’s going on in the jam band scene and at the jam band festivals is more vital to jazz than the events where it’s just a bunch of smooth jazz,” says Denson. “It’s the kids who invent and support the music. When you go to a jam band festival and see Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, or something weird like that, it’s a bunch of kids watching and dancing to it. Whereas, these old guys who want to hear ‘Take the A Train’ over and over again are, as Charlie Hunter put it, involved in necrophilia.”

Whereas the Greyboy Allstars often stretched into more freaked-out experimental jazz ramblings, Tiny Universe was determined to anchor itself in a structured and perhaps more soul-filled groove. Denson even started singing lead on a few numbers. Their recordings — 2001’s Dance Lesson #2 and ’03’s The Bridge — were winding exercises in 4/4 funk and groove with loads of James Brown beats, top-notch woodwind and percussion work, pithy organ and Wurlitzer sounds, and the quirky vinyl-scratching talents of special guest, DJ Logic.

The original Allstars recently re-formed and already have a new, untitled full-length due in Jan. The Tiny Universe also have a new, five-song EP, titled Once You’re There, ready for release this month.

Earlier this year, the saxophonist stepped away from his larger ensembles and formed a trio with organist Anthony Smith (formerly of Global Funk Council) and San Diego session man and in-demand drummer Brett Sanders. They started jamming this year with weekly gigs at a San Diego tavern called Winston’s. With only two dozen gigs under their collective belt, they’ve already tightened up their set and expanded their grooves.

“I found myself with a little free time this year and I wanted to do something jazzy,” Denson says. “I initially thought the trio thing would be bass, drums, and sax, but then I thought that might be too restrictive. So I came up with the idea of an organ trio, with organ, drums, and sax. It’s very different from the other bands. It’s funky in places, it swings a bit, and it’s way looser in a lot of ways. It’s really a blast.”

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