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Karl Denson's Expanding Universe

Saxophonist Karl Denson bridges the gap between jazz and funk.



Veteran saxophonist Karl Denson has played with some of the biggest names in rock, jazz and funk, including Lenny Kravitz, James Brown brassman Fred Wesley, and Miles Davis alumni Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. But ask him about his upcoming New Orleans shows for the Voodoo Music Experience, and Denson gushes like an up-and-comer who's landed his first major gig. "Playing festivals is the best, and playing New Orleans is the best," Denson says by phone from a Philadelphia tour stop. "I just like the atmosphere. Plus, there's nothing like New Orleans after hours, with the vibe and the energy just pouring out all over the place."

Funk-master Denson can match that intensity. The saxophonist tours relentlessly at a pace of 200-plus shows a year, and is building a growing fan base and reputation built upon his high-energy, marathon performances. His May 2001 appearance at Tipitina's -- which featured an unannounced guest appearance from Denson's former employer Lenny Kravitz -- lasted past 5 a.m. That show, and previous local appearances at House of Blues and the Howlin' Wolf, have paved the way for the larger spotlight of the Saenger Theater this Saturday, Oct. 27. Denson shrugs off the jump in venue capacity. "I don't keep up with stuff like that," says Denson. "My job is to get the music right."

The jazz man cum jam band icon has been getting it right for more than a decade. He was raised in southern California on a steady dose of Motown, soul and funk, and at age 13 began playing sax, inspired by the likes of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and Eddie Harris. His first big break came as a session player with part-time New Orleanian Kravitz, who tapped Denson's tenor in the late '80s for contributions on Let Love Rule and Mama Said -- work that landed him a spot in Kravitz's touring band. This exposure led to collaborations with legendary trombonist Fred Wesley; together, they recorded four albums. In the early '90s, Denson created four acoustic jazz albums, highlighted by the 1994 release Chunky Pecan Pie, a collaboration with DeJohnette and Holland.

After years of establishing himself in classic jazz formats, Denson broke loose in 1994 with the acid jazz smash "Unwind Your Mind," which topped the European dance charts. Recorded with Andreas Stevens, AKA DJ Greyboy, the track inspired the duo to form Greyboy Records. With his newfound funk grooves, Denson set out to create "the ultimate groove band." The result was the Greyboy Allstars, which became an underground sensation and one of the top-grossing club and festival acts before disbanding in 1998.

But Denson's rapid ascent continues with his current band, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. After recording a self-titled debut album in 2000, Denson was signed by famed Blue Note Records for his recently released CD, Dance Lesson #2. Denson is typically humble about joining the label of his jazz heroes: "I can't tell what my part will be in that tradition. Time can only tell that. The only thing I can determine is the initial reaction of the audience to the music."

Denson's perpetual motion guided the jam-packed sessions for Dance Lesson #2, which was recorded in six days with bassist Chris Wood (Medeski, Martin and Wood), turntable maestro DJ Logic and guitarist Charlie Hunter. For Denson, the studio is a brief respite from the road.

"I don't have time to spend a long time in the studio and craft an album," he says. "That takes a lot of money. I don't like being away from home, but that's how I make my money. I don't make any money from records, but even if I come to a point where I can take a long time off to craft a record, then I still have to think about my band. We've got to grow the tree a little bigger before we can kick back and relax. Plus, there's no way I can sit around for six months and stare at my navel."

And Denson crosses paths with plenty of friends on the road. His Voodoo Music Experience gigs offer multiple potential jam sessions; his Saenger show with Robert Walter's 20th Congress is essentially a Greyboy Allstars reunion, and Denson is also close with Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson. No matter what happens, Denson's musical mission remains the same. "What I aim to do is get my point across, from my head to the music to the audience," he says. "It's dance music. And because we aim to create dance music, it allows us to experiment with people. I think that's our trick. You keep people dancing and having a good time, then you take them wherever you want them to go."

'I can't tell what my part will be in that tradition. Time can only tell that.' -- Karl Denson on joining the famed roster of Blue Note Records
  • 'I can't tell what my part will be in that tradition. Time can only tell that.' -- Karl Denson on joining the famed roster of Blue Note Records

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