Karl Denson on playing with Tiny Universe and the Rolling Stones, and making pancakes
Karl Denson has toured the world on and off for the past five years with the Rolling Stones and has led his jazzy funk-rock band, Tiny Universe, since 1998. But when he’s at home in San Diego, his three children — ages 21, 23 and 24 — regard this veteran saxophonist, flutist and vocalist in an altogether different light.
“It’s still basically: ‘Dad, cook me some food.’ That’s my main function — food prep!” Denson said with a laugh. “I’m going to go home from tour, and the kids are going to say: ‘Make me some pancakes!’ ”
How good are his pancakes?
“My pancakes,” the Santa Ana native replied proudly, “are pretty stellar. From scratch, I can whip you up some pancakes!”
Just how broad an array is demonstrated by a glance at his impressive discography.
He has made a dozen albums since 1992 as a solo artist and as the leader of Tiny Universe. His band’s socially and politically inspired new album, “Gnomes and Badgers”— about which more later in this article — will be released Friday. An earnest call for unity in troubled times, it’s the first release on his new label, Seven Spheres Records.
Denson has been featured on albums by several Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, including the Allman Brothers Band, Steve Winwood and the Rolling Stones. His other credits include recordings with such jazz and funk greats as Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Fred Wesley, the jam bands Slightly Stoopid and Gov’t Mule and indie-rock favorites The Bird & The Bee. And he’s recorded extensively with funk-rock star Lenny Kravitz, who in 2014 personally recommended Denson to Mick Jagger when the Rolling Stones needed to replace their then-ailing tenor saxophonist, Bobby Keys, who died the same year.
Touring with Tiny Universe and the Stones
Denson’s latest stadium tour with the Rolling Stones kicks off April 20 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. So far, it includes just one Southern California date — May 11 — at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
With pancakes on the back-burner, Denson kicked off his 2019 tour with Tiny Universe on Jan. 10 in Orlando and will be on the road with his band until a March 23 show in Alaska. For good measure, he’ll follow his April 26 concert with the Rolling Stones at the 2019 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with a Tiny Universe show later that same night at the famed Big Easy nightclub, Tipitina’s.
In between comes a March 15 San Diego album-release performance with Tiny Universe at the Music Box. Its capacity of just over 700 is about 59,000 less than the size of the audience that attended each of the Rolling Stones’ 1994 Rose Bowl concerts.
“So that’s really where the focus is. I’m as excited as the crowd is to see those guys, you know, so I’m just up there as a part of it. My feeling, always, when I’m on stage with the Stones is really, I’m just like: ‘There’s Mick Jagger dancing around! There’s Keith Richards! Ronnie Wood just came over and watched me play a solo and Charlie Watts is giving me a smile,’ or whatever. So it’s just those four guys.”
The musical differences between Tiny Universe and the Rolling Stones are readily apparent. So are their accommodations and modes of transportation on tour, as Denson readily acknowledges.
Tiny Universe uses a van for short tour legs and travels and sleeps in a tour bus for longer stretches. The Rolling Stones travel on a private jet and stay at five-star hotels.
Denson’s Tiny Universe band mates are at least a few decades younger than the members of the Rolling Stones, who are all in their 70s. The work ethics of the two bands are, in his words, “very different.”
“Just because Tiny Universe can’t spend two weeks rehearsing for a tour like the Stones can,” Denson replied. “So we get in there and we get it all done in a couple of days. But I’m definitely more focused now when I’m rehearsing than I was before.
“Because, seeing these guys, at 75 years old, get in there — we’ll have a five-hour rehearsal and they work four and a half out of those five hours, and Mick will literally sing for three and a half or four hours. It’s kind of amazing! And he’s not messing around. He does a warm-up before he gets there and warms down after rehearsal. It’s serious business, so it’s made me a lot more serious about my job.”
From jazz and acid-jazz to funk and rock
Denson first attracted the attention of San Diego music fans in 1993 as a member of the acid-jazz band The Greyboy Allstars, with which he still does annual reunion tours. His debut solo album, the hard-bop-fueled “Blackened Red Snapper,” had been released a year earlier by the German record label Minor Music.
Although jazz remains his first love, Denson favors a groove-intensive funk and rock style with Tiny Universe. And while his saxophone practice regimen still includes such jazz classics as “I Hear a Rhapsody” and Thelonious Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” Denson now focuses on the blues, the music that gave birth to jazz, rock, soul, funk and much more.
“As a kid growing up in Orange County, I never really got the blues, because I was a jazz guy, and I didn’t really understand it. But probably 20 years ago — when I became an actual blues fan — it was because I watched a Howlin’ Wolf documentary and that totally put my head on a swivel. I was just like ‘Whoa!’ When you hear (vintage Wolf songs like) ‘Smokestack Lightning’ or ‘Shake For Me,’ and think about how long ago that was ... it just blows my mind because those songs are so right now. ...
“From that documentary, you see the interchange between (Wolf) and Son House. So I started listening to Sun House. And then from Sun House I started listening to Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt, and realized how deep that whole blues thing is.”
In addition to his turn-on-a-dime band, Denson is joined on the 11-song album by longtime Rolling Stones’ keyboardist Chuck Leavell and such diverse guests as Ivan Neville and Lukas Nelson. The music that results is designed to inspire both contemplation and celebration.
“I’ve always thought the idea behind my music was to make people happy, because that’s what it does for me,” he explained. “And so this record, it’s kind of a blues record. There are some love songs, some political songs (and) some songs just about humanity. And hopefully, with that introduction, I get to talk about things that are important to me and, you know, just us becoming more evolved as people — and dancing while we do it. ...
“The blues are hopeful, though. For me, the blues just mean you’re feeling real things. … If you can feel for yourself, then you can feel for other people. I think that’s really the important factor, getting in touch with the fact that we’re just humans and life’s complicated. The way I see things now might not be the way I see things next week, based on what I experience between now and then. Being open to that — and being aware of hurt, from myself (and) other people, and joy from myself and other people — that’s what the blues is all about.”
Encouraging civil dialogue
The cover art for “Gnomes and Badgers” is an illustration of an angry gnome and an angry badger. Both are wearing suits and ties, while pointing at each other in an accusatory manner.
“I immediately thought this is a really good concept for us to roll out,” Denson explained. “I’ve been feeling that, as Americans and as human beings, we’re not having enough civil dialogue. We’re becoming too tribal. So the idea of the gnomes and badgers was to create a little world where these (beings) are completely different from each other, but they manage to talk about things and have meaningful discussions about important things without becoming rude or intolerant or degrading.
“I’m really happy with the whole record. I think, overall, it feels like my most complete statement in terms of the songs, from ‘What If You Knew’ and ‘Time to Pray’ to ‘Change My Way’ and ‘Can We Trade.’ Those are kind of like the ‘message songs’ on the record. And then ‘Falling Down’ and ‘Just Remembered’ are a couple of ‘dream songs’ — like, I actually dreamed those songs. So having those come to life is really rewarding, too.”
Denson is especially proud of the video for “Change My Way,” a song he co-wrote with New Orleans music mainstay Anders Osborne. It was directed by Paul McCartney veteran TG Herrington, who also helmed the 2018 music documentary “A Tuba to Cuba.”
The video for “Change My Way” focuses on literal and figurative borders. As it plays, messages flash, including “do unto others,” “blessed are the merciful” and “show kindness to strangers — they might be angels.”
“The overarching idea is that we’re a country of immigrants and that we’re (all) different,” Denson said. “(In) the video, there are people taking pieces of their clothing and they’re giving it to... an old lady making a beautiful American flag out of all these rags, and it’s amazing. We may auction the flag off...
“The proceeds (from the song) will go to UNICEF or to some (organization) that deals directly with the border. My charity of choice has been UNICEF, just because I like the idea of helping refugees. ... I encourage everybody out there to get involved with somebody else’s life other than your own.”
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe “Gnomes and Badgers” album release concert
When: 9:30 p.m. March 15
Where: The Music Box, 1337 India St., downtown.
Tickets: $28 (general admission); $106 (dinner package for two), plus service fees (must be 21 or older to attend)
Phone: (619) 795-1337
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