Virtuoso saxophonist, flutist, singer-songwriter, and a bandleader extraordinaire, Karl Denson is already walking this earth a living legend. In addition to two-plus decades with the trend-setting Greyboy Allstars and his own KDTU project, his album credits include Allman Brothers Band, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Fred Wesley, Slightly Stoopid, Gov’t Mule, Soulive, and Lenny Kravitz, to name a few. It’s no secret that in 2015, Denson was drafted to replace the dearly-departed Bobby Keys on saxophone for the titanic Rolling Stones touring band. That kind of high-profile placement has transmitted into a fervent renewed interest in Denson’s solo endeavors, and with that Karl arrives at a new beginning of sorts.
From an album perspective, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has been quiet for a few years, but Karl D. and company return to the jazz-funk zeitgeist with Gnomes and Badgers, the first release on his own imprint Seven Spheres Records. The man they affectionately call “The Diesel” regards the recent effort as a special brand of blues, but also a conceptually-political record, too; Denson has said he was inspired by Stevie Wonder’s iconic Hotter than July when conceiving and recording Gnomes and Badgers.
Denson told the San Diego Tribune,
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.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s lineup is currently comprised of longtime brass-foil Chris Littlefield (trumpet/flugelhorn), guitarists DJ Williams and Seth Freeman, Greyboy Allstars rhythm section Chris Stillwell (bass) and Zak Najor (drums), rounded out by veteran keyboardist David Veith. To complement the members of KDTU, Denson is joined on the 11-track LP by the likes of Ivan Neville (Dumpstaphunk and The Neville Brothers), Lukas Nelson, keyboardists Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones) and Kenneth Crouch. Karl teams with previous collaborator Anders Osborne, who co-writes two songs on the album with his old friend.
Gnomes and Badgers’ curious cover art speaks to what was in Denson’s heart when composing the material heard on the record; the illustration features an angry gnome and a fuming badger, each donning a staid suit and tie and both pointing at one another in an argumentative fashion.
The bandleader explained to the San Diego Tribune,
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.
The album’s opening salvo comes out determined to establish a strong vibe; “What If You Knew” is a driving groove machine with a fatback bottom end, chicken scratch guitars and a shimmying rhythm rumble. Next up is a swaggering take on “Gossip”, a beloved 1969 Cyril Neville tune written by The Meters’ Leo Nocentelli. KDTU uncorks the slow and dirty funk, while Denson mashes up on the Uptown Ruler’s raucous vocal. The song keeps its Bayou charm intact, and is performed pretty faithful to the Meters-backed original.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – “Change My Way”
“Change My Way” is the lead single and video from Gnomes & Badgers, a Denson writing collaboration with celebrated New Orleans bluesman Osborne. The guitarist/singer-songwriter is a veteran of the Crescent City scene and boasts a deep history and familiarity with KDTU going back to when Anders went on the road with KDTU to perform the Rolling Stones classic LP Sticky Fingers back in 2011. “Change My Way” is another dirty, bluesy dirge with staccato pianos, a Gospelized chorus, as guitarist DJ Williams blaxploitation riffage keeping the vibes right on time.
Another single released to the public before the record itself, “I’m Your Biggest Fan” leaps out the gates with chunky, dueling guitars and a healthy slab of attitude, somewhat of a nod to the frenetic funk of KDTU jams past. Same for the multi-faceted, halcyon 70’s throwback “Can We Trade”, which finds the Diesel taking one of few precious alto-saxophone solos found on Gnomes and Badgers. Of note is subdued slide guitar from Arkansas-born Seth Freeman, and the glistening chemistry between Denson and longtime trumpet/flugelhorn maven Chris Littlefield. Established over two decades of sharing sound and space on the crowded KDTU stage, Karl’s cohorts each make themselves known on “Can We Trade”, a slammin’ number that has monster jam potential whenever introduced to their fiery live set.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – “I’m Your Biggest Fan”
“Millvale” is a joint that’s been in the KDTU rotation for a few years now, it’s studio rendition a syncopated strut with bubblin’ tenor sax and some whistling Hammond B3 organ. The high-energy song is topped off by a bouncing percussion section on which “Millvale” rides off into a blustery jaw-harp/saxophone conversation that takes the listener down South without sacrificing even a modicum of groove. “Something Sweet” is more of the aforementioned bluesy-trip, this more late-60’s crunch then 70’s smooth, with somewhat of a N’awlinz detour on the sax solo and some super-clean Keef-meets-Isaiah Sharkey type twang from DJ Williams’ axe.
“Falling Down” is the second Osborne collaboration, and it sees Karl once again soar atop an uptempo, Latin-tinged rhythm, his R&B vocal completed by a lusty flute melody. “Time to Pray” reveals another Gospel-drenched chorus, even more flute-down magic and healthy helping of dueling bluesy guitars. “Time to Pray” chugs along like some early 70’s soul with yet another strong lead vocal performance from Denson. Gnomes and Badgers finishes strong with“Smart Boy”, a rocker that owes a debt of influence to the Glimmer Twins but still funks hard enough for the Diesel train. The final composition is the LP’s most sprawling and ambitious number, as “Just Remember” covers quite an expanse of geography despite its minimalist approach, an ethos harking back to the Blue Note rare groove era. The song delivers a massive Hammond B3 bully sesh, a decidedly more sultry slide from Freeman, and a bright, fantastic vocal arrangement to drive “Just Remember” home. The nine-minute opus serves to wrap up Gnomes and Badgers, a tremendous return to form from Denson, KDTU, and the plethora of collaborators who helped cook this up in the Diesel’s kitchen.
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 said to the San Diego Tribune.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – Gnomes & Badgers – Full Album
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is on tour throughout March and April, in support of Gnomes and Badgers. The band will also appear several times in NOLA during Jazz Fest, returning to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival proper for the first time since 2005. Head to the band’s website for more information.