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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
August 1, 2009
Gothic Theater, Denver
Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe are groove masters, purveyors of the groove, groove merchants. Saturday (really, early Sunday), during a late night show at the Gothic, Denson and the Universe got down to it in a nearly non-stop, high energy funk fiesta.
As the leader, Denson sets the pace. He plays alto and tenor sax as well as flute and he sings. He’s joined on the front line by Chris Littlefield on trumpet/flugelhorn and guitarist Brian Jordon. The engine room includes, of course, bass (Ron Johnson) and drums (John Staten) as well as keyboards (David Veith) with a Leslie equipped Hammond B-3 and Rhodes electric piano. Together they lay down funk based grooves with tight, intricate horn lines on top. I heard shades of the Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, Ronnie Laws and the Crusaders (only a little edgier). It also has much in common with Denson’s other project (which one’s the “side” project?) Greyboy Allstars. Many of the unison horn lines could have come right off a Blue Note album from about 1961. Many of Denson’s solos had a serious bebop influence as well. And all the time, the funk kept churning down below.
This is hip-shaking, good time party music. But there’s enough complexity to hold the interest of the listeners as well as the dancers. Much of the music is written out and overtly arranged. Denson leaves room for himself and his Universites (Universalists?) to solo but the arranged parts take up considerable space in the compositions. Most of the music is instrumental, but perhaps a quarter of the tunes have vocals with Denson singing lead and Littlefield and occasionally Jordon harmonizing.
Most of the evening’s selections were originals. However, the band threw in a couple covers, not only to provide an anchor of recognition, but also to prove they could put the Denson sound on music that may otherwise seem outside of their niche. They put their funk stamp on Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” which is one of Zeppelin’s funkier tunes (to the extent heavy metal can get funky), but the band definitely found further funk in that song. Coincidentally, Gov’t Mule also covered that tune at the Mile High Music Festival a couple weeks ago. Is this tune, from Physical Graffiti, becoming a standard like “All Blues” or “Summertime”? Then, in a demonstration that they could funkifize absolutely anything, they funked up the 2001 theme, “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Denson showed he knows his way around the musical world by introducing that piece as written by “Rikard Strauss” instead of pronouncing his first name the way it looks: “Richard.”
The show was billed as an after party for Phish who played at Red Rocks earlier that evening. Marco Benevento and his trio opened the evening with a set of piano oriented grooves that ranged from Bruce Hornsby to Don Pullen with numerous stops in between. Benevento started at 11 and the Tiny Universe came on at 1. Normally, I like to stay for the entire show, so it pains me to report that I didn’t quite make it to the end. By the time I left, Denson and crew were still going strong. At 3:20 AM.