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Karl Denson Brings The Funk


It wasn't just Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, and Earth, Wind & Fire that caught the ear of a young Karl Denson in the 1970's.

"The jazz was really funky too," said Denson.  "Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis and all that stuff was going on. It was a pretty fertile time."

Indeed.  In the 1960's, jazz great Ramsey Lewis has said he remembers a summer in Chicago hearing Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" wafting out of nearly every window as he was walking down one neighborhood street.  It seems inconceivable today (or even the past few decades) that a jazz song would have that kind of market penetration.  Though Denson was born 6 years after "Watermelon Man's" heyday, he can relate to Lewis's nostalgia.  He said jazz people stopped writing good songs.

"I think there's a point where it became so much about how fast and furious you could play that cats stopped writing good records.  Back in the day you got a Miles Davis record and a Herbie Hancock record ... and it was full of good songs.  I think that died a little bit. At first it went from really good fusion to a lot of parts, then to great players playing bad songs.  Then when it came back around to playing straight ahead like Wynton and Branford Marsalis, it was too focused on old songs.  It wasn't forward thinking, so you ended up at jazz festivals listening to 'Take the "A" Train' or Kenny G," said Denson.

Denson said founding Greyboy All-Stars in the mid 1990's and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe a decade later was partly a reaction to jazz becoming too cerebral.

"And there was a reaction to kids starting dancing to old jazz records," said Denson.  The hip-hop artists ran out of rock and funk records to sample, so they started sampling jazz records.  There was a movement at that time in the United States where we all of a sudden we could play Horace Silver in a rock club and people didn't know what it was.  They just thought it was cool.  The whole boogaloo thing is kind of based on that early to mid 60's jazz music."

From boogaloo, James Brown was an easy jump for Denson. 

"We were having fun playing it, because we'd be in rock clubs with a thousand kids playing our take on those sounds.  I'd look around and say 'man, we're getting away with murder here'," chuckled Denson.

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe is now putting a new coat of paint on songs from the 21st century, including a funky version of The White Stripes "Seven Nation Army" on their 2014 release "New Ammo."  He said big horns and big arrangements was the unifying theme of the record.  That big sound includes the song "My Baby," which starts with a beat reminiscent of blues great Bo Diddley, something you might not have heard early in Denson's career.  Then, he considered himself a 'jazz cat.'

"I didn't have time to listen to guys playing one or two chords," laughed Denson.  "I wanted to hear eight and ten. I was always a John Lee Hooker fan though.  Then 20 years ago I watched a Howlin Wolf documentary and got my mind blown."

The opening riff to "My Baby" was the first time he played guitar on record.  The long time saxophonist picked up the instrument roughly five years ago because he said the saxophone was a "lonely" instrument.

"It's hard to sing or talk along with it. I was on a rock 'n roll cruise watching everybody and thought, 'I'm going to learn how to play guitar," said Denson.

The saxophone will remain his main instrument though. In addition to his main gigs with Greyboy All-Stars and Tiny Universe, Denson has played as a sideman with many name artists, including Lenny Kravitz.  He currently tours with the Rolling Stones when they venture out on the road. 

"It's surreal.  People ask about the big audiences when I play with The Stones.  It's not even that, it's the four guys on stage.  The audience is nothing.  It's standing there having Mick Jagger running back and forth, or Keith (Richards) and Ronnie (Wood) hanging out with you while you play a solo," marveled Denson.

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe brings its funky jazz-rock to The Park West in Chicago December 9 and The Old Rock House in St. Louis December 10.

Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.