Karl Denson is a busy man these days. In addition to fronting his own band, Tiny Universe, the legendary saxophonist recently booked a gig as a touring member of the Rolling Stones. Considering the group is heading down to Cuba for their first performance there ever, we couldn’t resist an opportunity to chat with Denson himself. Between Stones work, Slightly Stoopid, The Greyboy Allstars and his many expected performances during Jazz Fest (including the revival of his Prince cover set), there’s a lot going on for fans of Diesel!
Our own Rex Thomson caught up to Denson for the exclusive. Read on below:
L4LM: In just a couple days you’re going to be following in the recent footsteps of President Obama by visiting the island of Cuba with The Rolling Stones. With the decades long embargoes lifting, you’re going to be one of the first western bands to play for the people there for quite a while. How excited are you to be part of such a significant cultural moment?
Karl Denson: This Rolling Stones thing just keeps getting more and more surreal. I was watching Obama’s speech yesterday, Waiting to see if he would mention the Rolling Stones visit, And of course he did. There’s really no words to explain how great and strange this segment of my life is.
L4LM: Will you have any opportunity to explore the island?
KD: We are only going to be there for a day and a half, so I don’t really expect to do a lot of exploring, but I will definitely take a long walk around the city. I want to make sure I get down to the beach and see how it compares. I’m going to take in some authentic Cuban food which is exciting and they’ve already scheduled a concert for us.
L4LM: You’ve recently toured South America with the Stones as well, and have now played on practically every continent. Was getting to see the world a factor in your joining the band?
KD: Absolutely not! It’s the Rolling Stones!
L4LM: It looks like the only continent you haven’t played on is Antarctica. Any chance you and the Stones could bust out the parkas and play one for the penguins?
KD: If somebody takes me down there. Imagine me standing in the middle of the Penguins, covered with snow and ice, with my saxophone. It’s like a jazzy children’s book.
L4LM: When last we spoke you were completing a new disc with your band The Tiny Universe. How close are we to getting to hear this new material?
KD: It’s very close. I’m going to rerecord a few tunes in a couple of weeks and then we will be wrapping it up. Aiming for an early fall release.
L4LM: Speaking of material, you’re bringing your Prince tribute set to Howlin Wolf for second weekend of Jazz Fest. You’ve taken on some pretty stellar artists in the past like the Beastie Boys and RUN DMC…what made you decide to adapt the Purple One’s catalog?
KD: I like to think I know a lot about music and have a strong background, so doing this album was a little gift from me to my fans, most of whom, even though they are Prince fans, have never heard this particular record.
L4LM: The night after the Prince show you’re going to be doing your legendary annual late night blow out at Tips. It’s always a star studded set with special guests and no stopping until dawn. Do you have any idea who’s joining you for this, or do you just invite the entire city and just see who makes it?
KD: Sometimes there’s so much going on you just have to wait and see what happens. The fun thing for me right now really is just that my band is hitting on all cylinders. I’m having so much fun I don’t care who comes to see it. I know it’s going be a blast. This year we get to rehearse more Of just what we do rather than some kind of specialty event.
L4LM: You’ll be playing a couple of gigs with one of your other projects, The Greyboy All-Stars, the first weekend of Jazz Fest. How easy is it for you to jump between three acts with their own catalogs in such a short period of time?
KD: It’s just music. It’s what I’ve been doing for the last forty years, Learning how to learn songs, and to remember them.
L4LM: Will you just be staying in town through both weekends of Jazz Fest? I’m sure there are plenty of bands who’d like to see you join them for some funky sit ins.
KD: I’ll be there for the two weekends and in between. I’ve got a few extra things to do while I’m there. That’s one of the fun things about jazz fest; the collaborations that are available.
L4LM: Having done so many sit ins and jam sessions over the years have you learned any tricks to fitting in, musically, with players you’re not overly familiar with?
KD: Always, always play for the song. Each composition is the most important thing.
L4LM: So, between these three bands, how many shows do you think you play in a year?
KD: Let’s just say it’s a lot. And it’s four bands, You have to add Slightly Stoopid in also.
L4LM: We’ve talked about your health regimen, but how much of a toll does all this touring take on you?
KD: It’s pretty grueling. But over the years I have learned to schedule in route things properly. That helps a lot.
L4LM: So, you average about 150 shows per year around the world. It seems like you’d have to have learned some tricks to keeping yourself functioning optimally through such a grueling schedule. Can you give us an inside look at your on the road routine?
KD: I’ve been doing tai chi for close to 40 years. As long as I manage to give myself an extra hour to stretch and do some chi gong, I don’t generally have any problems. The voice is probably the most delicate gear in the touring machine. When I’m doing my band or The Greyboy All-Stars I have to be more aware of running myself down.
L4LM: Obviously in such a grueling schedule there’s a lot of dead time while traveling. Do you have any non musical hobbies you indulge in to fight the boredom?
KD: I’m pretty content all by myself. Practicing takes up a good amount of the downtime and I love politics so I watch and read a lot of news.
L4LM: With all the artists you’ve collaborated with reading like a who’s who of the music world, is there anyone left on your wish list to play with?
KD: There are always new artists popping up. I still haven’t played with Herbie Hancock. And Kendrick Lamar is one of my new favorite things to listen to. Also, I would love to do an actual project with Derek Trucks at some point.
L4LM: Can you remember when you first heard the breathy flow of a saxophone? Was it an instant love affair?
KD: I started hearing serious saxophone players when I was about 12. Shortly after I started playing saxophone myself. But it wasn’t until Fourth of July, 1988 that I actually fell in love with the instrument. I was on the Staten Island ferry back to Manhattan. There was an older black man on the ferry playing saxophone. He had lost his front teeth and played on in spite of it. There was something magical that Hit me in that moment. Mind you, I was drunk off my ass, but it was still one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life. I remember saying to myself” I love the saxophone”. There was a purity to the reason that he played.
L4LM: I’m sure you had players that influenced you, though you have a very recognizable, unique sound. Obviously, you had inspirations and influences at the beginning. When you were starting out, how long do you feel it took to develop your own style?
KD: I feel like I had my own style pretty early on. Not that it was necessarily good. I definitely attempted to carve my own path from the beginning, driven by the originality of my mentors: John Coltrane, Eddie Harris, Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis, etc. I think it took me around 20 years to become a voice that was Worth hearing.
L4LM: When you look back on your career, what do you hope to have accomplished with your music?
KD: It would be nice to have made enough of an impression on the World to still have people listening to my music decades from now