Karl Denson: From ‘Soul Train’ to the Rolling Stones
Sax player will take Club Red stage this weekend
By Geoff Hanson, One Step Ahead of the BluesSaxophonist Karl Denson will play Club Red on Saturday and Sunday with his band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. (Courtesy photo)
Tiny universe? Hardly.
Karl Denson traverses sonic landscapes that span musical galaxies. His notes ping through spiral nebulas and barrel on out into the cosmic heartland, finding funk in black holes, jazz in globular clusters, rock ’n’ roll in cosmic dust and intergalactic grooves in earthly dance halls.
Telluride will be the center of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (KDTU) this weekend as KDTU takes the stage at Club Red for two shows on Saturday and Sunday.
Denson is joined in the Tiny Universe by guitarist DJ Williams; former Greyboy Allstars drummer, Zak Najor; bassist Chris Stillwell, also of The Greyboy Allstars; Crush Effects’ keyboardist David Veith; trumpeter Chris Littlefield; and slide and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman.
I had the pleasure of working with Karl Denson when he made a guest appearance on a 2004 DVD I produced and directed called “Earth vs. The Radiators: The First 25.” I checked in with Karl this week during a phone interview, in which we spoke about Mexican weddings, Yusef Lateef and “Casino Boogie.”
Geoff Hanson: Your career took off when you linked up with Lenny Kravitz in 1987. How did that happen?
Karl Denson: A good friend of mine, a trumpet player named Michael Hunter, was friends with Lenny for a long time before I met him. Michael recommended me for a session with Lenny. He was playing bass and producing a record for a guy named Tony LeMans. That was kind of the beginning of that sound; the back to live soul.
GH: Explain that “back to live soul” sound. Lenny was using vintage instruments and you were recording to tape. Was that not happening back in 1988?
KD: We were in the 1980s, which was really about computers, about programming. R&B had been reduced to drum machines and sequencers at that time. I lived through the ’80s when the horn section died and people started using synth horns. We were bringing real instruments back.
GH: Let’s back up a second, how did you get to the point where you were accomplished enough as a player to get that call to go play with Lenny Kravitz?
KD: My first professional gig was with an artist named O’Bryan in the early ’80s. He was produced and managed by Don Cornelius from “Soul Train,” so I used to do “Soul Train” and sessions with them and played on different records. That’s how I got my bearings.
GH: Even before that, were you playing in the marching band in junior high, flute in music class, how did you get your start playing music and develop your chops?
KD: I started in junior high, I didn’t do marching band, but I always played in bands. I had a band that my comrades and I put together called Just Funk and we played from middle of eighth grade through 10th grade, and then I played in a bunch of Mexican wedding bands. I grew up in Santa Ana, California, which is very Latino. That was a lot of fun.
GH: When you started Just Funk in eighth grade in the early 1970s, what were some of the bands that you were trying to emulate?
KD: We were kind of a Sly Stone-meets-Jimi Hendrix band. That’s what we were listening to at the time. We were rock ’n’ rollers, it was a rock ’n’ roll thing. We stayed on that track — Sly, Buddy Miles, Santana, bands like that.
GH: Let’s jump forward to the point where you finished your five-year stint playing with Lenny Kravitz in the early ’90s and started your solo career. You recorded your first album “Blackened Red Snapper” (1992) around the same time as you recorded your first record with Greyboy. Tell me about that time.
KD: It all kind of converged really fast. In 1992, I was still playing with Lenny Kravitz. I met Greyboy when I was doing a cover band gig with my friends from my eighth grade band, Just Funk. We were doing a show in Laguna Beach in 1992 and Greyboy came down and he had heard about me and he introduced himself and we hit it off and I went to San Diego and recorded some tracks with him. That was the beginning of the whole acid jazz thing, which was basically DJs working with live musicians.
And at the same time, I got my own record deal and “Blackened Red Snapper” came out. So I was working with Lenny, my own album came out, the Greyboy thing was happening and I met Fred Wesley that year, too.
GH: That sounds like the point at which you went out into the universe.
KD: (laughs) Maybe.
GH: Where were you recording your own records in those days?
KD: I made my first record in Malibu. It was done directly to (analog) tape.
GH: Do you still record to tape?
KD: Yes. Always. My latest record we recorded on tape and then digitized, so we could work with it in Pro Tools.
GH: This is kind of obvious, but I’d like to hear it in your words, why tape?
KD: Because it sounds better. There’s a natural compression there that you don’t get from digital. It sounds big. It’s more real when you get down to it. In digital, it’s like everything’s being changed into something else and then changed back, and tape is a real signal hitting a tape and the analog thing is larger, more complete.
GH: The name “Tiny Universe” is pretty ironic. There’s nothing tiny about the band’s sound. How did you arrive at the name?
KD: It has to do with the large number of influences we have, so it’s the micro-macro. We definitely come from a lot of different places, and we free associate those influences. My foundation is jazz, then there’s the funk thing, the rock thing, country from time to time. We touch on everything and try to draw out the best elements from each one.
GH: Can you put some names on those different influences?
KD: The James Brown influence is always there, Sly and the Family Stone, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Eddie Harris, The Rolling Stones, Patty Griffin.
GH: Yusef Lateef? That’s a name I’m not familiar with. Tell me about him.
KD: Yusef Lateef was one of my main saxophone-flute guys growing up. There was Eddie Harris, David “Fathead” Newman from Ray Charles’ band. Those guys all played sax and flute and those guys were my inspiration. In the beginning it was just about playing jazz.
GH: You mentioned the Stones in there. (Longtime Rolling Stones saxophonist) Bobby Keys was a big influence on you wasn’t he?
KD: One of the reasons that joining the Stones seemed like a good fit is that I am a huge Bobby Keys fan. I was in my early 20s and people kept asking me to play some Bobby Keys. I didn’t know who he was and I figured out he was the sax player for the Rolling Stones. Listening to that music was very influential in teaching me how to play simple, how to play rock ’n’ roll. I had been listening to him for 30 years, so when I got the gig it felt right.
GH: What are some of your favorite Bobby Keys solos?
KD: “Casino Boogie” (off “Exile on Main St.”), that solo is genius. If you want to listen to what Bobby Keys was all about, “Casino Boogie” is the song to listen to.
GH: What’s the biggest audience you ever played with the Stones?
KD: In Quebec City a few years ago, we played in an open park and there was 120,000. Oh wait, now that I think about it, it was Havana. There were at least a half a million people there.
GH: Is that part of the allure of KDTU, playing in front of a small crowd so you can connect with an audience in a way you never could in a stadium?
KD: I just like playing music, whether I’m playing in a stadium or a small room. There’s a thing about bands like the Stones. They play a stadium like it’s a little room. That’s the crazy part. At that level, it’s about the songs. And their songbook is so strong that they can play in front of 60,000 people and make it feel like there are 300 in the room.
GH: Speaking of songbook, what are your two favorite Rolling Stones records?
KD: (long pause) “Sticky Fingers,” because of the saxophone work, and “Exile on Main St.” Those are kind of the normal top two you hear, but there’s a reason for that. I have songs on the others that I love, but as far as albums those are the two.
GH: You toured with Anders Osborne several years ago and played “Sticky Fingers” in its entirety here in Telluride in our hockey rink on Halloween. That’s a legendary show in these parts.
KD: That tour was my audition tape for the Stones. We sent them a version of me singing and playing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” from those shows.
GH: A few years ago, KDTU started playing the Pink Floyd song “Fearless.” That is an interesting choice for a funk band to cover. The last thing I would think is Karl D is going to cover this song.
KD: That was a management choice. My manager threw that at me and I liked it. I have another one that’s coming out in the next year that’s like “Fearless” that will surprise people when they hear it.
GH: How about surprising us this weekend with it?
KD: No, not yet. We’re in Allman Brothers mode now. We did an Allman Brothers tribute last year and we’ve been traveling around with some Allman Brothers in our pocket.
GH: Again, Southern rock isn’t exactly an obvious choice for KDTU.
KD: I started playing guitar in 2013 and as a result I picked up a second guitarist, this great slide player named Seth Freeman. That was a sea change for the band. Seth cut his teeth on the slide guitar of Duane Allman.
A friend of ours was a good friend with Gregg, and he told us that Gregg always wanted horns but Duane didn’t want them, and after Duane died the reason they never had horns is because Gregg was honoring Duane’s wishes. So when he heard how we wrote horn arrangements to Allman Brothers tunes, he thought it was something Gregg really would have loved.
GH: What would you like people to say when you are no longer with us?
KD: I just want to be remembered as quality. That’s my main goal, that you can still listen to the music and that it still makes sense, that it will be timeless.
GH: They’ll still be listening to the Stones in 100 years.
KD: I’ll tag team on that if I can.