Karl Denson’s Second Dance Lesson
Karl Denson has an amazing band in Tiny Universe, but at the time he made
"Dance Lesson #2," he was between players. So rather than be thwarted in the
studio, he went in with drummer Zak Najor from Denson's days with the Greyboy
Allstars, Downtown New York ill-bient mixmaster DJ Logic, Medeski, Martin &
Wood bassist Chris Wood, innovative guitarist-bassist Charlie Hunter, Marc
Ribot's Los Cubanos Prostizos percussionist EJ Rodriguez, the great blues
organist Ron Levy and legendary guitarist Melvin Sparks and his
soul-jazz-groove twin on the organ, Leon Spencer. The resulting disc is a
booty-shaking musical monster that just may make jazz snobs take the jam
scene seriously for once. Later this summer, Denson will take Tiny Universe
out on the road in a Further Festival-like tour with Bob Weir & Ratdog,
Rusted Root and String Cheese Incident buddy/bard Keller Williams, with
whom he promises to jam frequently. I spoke with the 25-year jazz veteran
about his formative years in Southern California listening to funk and jazz
and how that was influenced by his tenure with the Greyboy Allstars. We also
chatted about his great new record and his admiration for the jam scene's
loveable, loyal, friendly freaks. Enjoy the following and then check out
*Jazz initially was dance music, then it went through a long period where it
was more about listening than dancing. Comment on how you combine elements of
I like the dancing period. I like what that creates in the audience. I
thought it was time for a change in terms of what jazz musicians were
presenting to an audience, their inability to have girls at their shows
*Comment on how Coltrane and the Joel Dorn catalog of Roland Kirk, Fathead
Newman, Yusef Lateef were influences on you, as well James Brown, Sly Stone
and Ohio Players. What did you get from all of them that you still use?*
The Ohio Players and James Brown and Sly, that was all the stuff that I
heard in my environment naturally. I couldn't really avoid that. I grew up
loving that stuff and going to parties and hearing that music. That was party
music. Then I became a jazz listener through my brother. It just caught me.
So I grew up in this paradox. With the bands that I played with, I really
wanted to play some of that Joel Dorn/Atlantic kind of funk, but nobody
really was interested in it so that was kind of my own little retreat. It's
all there. That was a really formative time of my life. It's a funny thing
because sometimes I'll write a tune and years later, I'll pull out an old
record and I'll hear something that I can tell was a direct influence on
certain tunes. I think it's all there. That's why I continue to try to listen
to a lot, a lot music to get more stuff to seep in.
Do you cover any of those acts?
We do a couple of James Brown tunes. We do 'The Grunt,' which is more of
a JBs tune. It's an instrumental. And we do 'Damn Right I'm Somebody.'
They're really Fred Wesley tunes. And we do 'Think' and 'The Big Payback.'
That's one of the greatest tunes ever written. We do quite a few Fathead
tunes about three or four. We do 'Captain Buckles,' 'Missy' and 'Front
Money.' I've still got my trumpet player confused. He can't figure out which
tunes I wrote because he wasn't listening to this kind of music really. Every
once in a while, he'll think a tune is a cover tune and he'll find out it's
my tune. So after a while, he pretty much thought I was writing everything.
What is boogaloo jazz?
Boogaloo is about the late '50s. Dizzy Gillespie is one of the main
architects. After bebop, Dizzy went back to his roots and started studying
the Latin rhythms. He and Eddie Harris and Lee Morgan, who's one of my main
boogaloo influences. It's when the beat straightened out. That was
responsible for a lot of different things.
So it’s the post-bebop fusion with Latin, like ‘A Night in Tunisia.’
Yeah. That's aiming in that boogaloo direction. I'm glad you said that
because I've been thinking about that. I want to sit down sometime and find
the earliest boogaloo tunes I can find. And that's probably one of them.
Is Rumpwinder’ most representative of boogaloo? If so, why?
Yeah for me. That's like Lee Morgan, all those tunes he wrote, like
'Sidewinder' and 'Rump Roller' and 'Cornbread.'
*So it's a cross between 'Rump Roller' and 'Sidewinder.' At that point, did
those guys appeal to kids the way you do?*
They totally did. If you look at jazz documentaries, you see what was
going on with Bird and the bebop era. And then a little bit later, I think it
still had a kid conscience. It had come out of a swing thing so a lot of
those kids were growing up, and it wasn't so much competing with rock 'n'
roll and funk yet. It was definitely the predecessor of all those styles.
*Soundwise, what's the difference between Tiny Universe and the lineup on
'Dance Lesson #2' ?*
At the time I did the record, the Tiny Universe lineup wasn't complete. I
wasn't really happy with my drummer and my bass player. The band hadn't
*You had made a record, but for the next one, things really weren't the way
you wanted them?*
Exactly. That record was made within a few months of putting the band
together, just to get something out there. I was still searching out the
musicians, but I needed to do a new record. So rather than go in the studio
and battle with whatever forces that were going to try to thwart me in the
studio, I just called in the guys that I knew could do the job. As a result,
it's a very different record than the Tiny Universe would have made.
What about now?
It still would have been different. That record was written with the
purposes of simplicity, which is not my natural bent. My next record is going
to be a bit more adventurous in terms of writing.
With Tiny Universe?
It’s such an allstar record, what did you like most recording with those cats?
I really liked the ease of the record. I wanted to have this record that
was fairly flat, just straight-forward grooves. I felt like it was really
easy to get that. Just the way everybody plays a groove was the best part of
that whole thing. You could throw out a tune with a little melody and they
put enough of a groove on it where you really know that the melody is
standing up by itself pretty immediately.
Which tune on ‘Dance Lesson #2’ works best live with Tiny Universe?
'Dance Lesson' works very well with the band and the 'Rumpwinder' works
really well with the band. Both of them get everybody going and the band
feeds off that. And 'Flute Down''s pretty much been a live hit.
*Did you do any of these tunes with Tiny Universe before recording 'Dance
Only the 'Rumpwinder.'
What was ‘Dance Lesson #1’?
'Dance Lesson #1' was everything before this. My jazz records and my
Greyboy Allstars stint. That's all kind of getting me to this point.
*Will the Greyboy Allstars ever get back together for a one-off disc and/or
It's a possibility. We talk about it every once in a while. We all still
talk, and we're all really good friends, so it's definitely a possibility.
It's kind of nice that everybody's doing really well on their own so it makes
it more comfortable for the likelihood that we could get back together and do
a record and a short tour.
When was the last time you guys all played together?
Boy. All of us? That was probably in the summer of '98 at North Sea Jazz
Festival in Holland.
*How did the Allstars influence your direction in music? What did you do with
them that you wouldn't be doing now if you hadn't played with them?*
It was a really good lesson in taste. I would be doing pretty much what
I'm doing now, but being with four other musicians that you really
appreciated their taste, I think that molded a little bit of my taste in
terms of musical integrity. There were times when I would maybe go one
direction, maybe a little more this way or maybe a little more this way. From
being in the Allstars and being able to absorb four other great ideas,
leadership qualities, I think I gained a lot from them in that way.
*Most jazz acts beat their heads against the wall trying to sweat out a
following, but some, like you, John Scofield, Medeski, Martin and Wood,
Charlie Hunter, even Joshua Redman, have embraced the jam scene. Why don't
more jazz acts do that and do you think more eventually will?*
I think a lot of them have no idea we're out here, for one thing, or what
is really going on. It's really easy for people, like jazz purists, to think,
'Oh, they're not really playing jazz.' But I think when you realize that John
Scofield is embracing this audience… You know, we've been able get away
with murder for years now. The Allstars were playing Horace Silver tunes.
People were dancing to Horace Silver and Eddie Harris tunes with really great
changes and everything. I think eventually those musicians will come more in
this direction, especially as they see the audience grow because it's a great audience.
What are you looking forward to most with the Rusted Root/Bob Weir tour?
Spending time with my family.
You’ll be able to take on them on the road?
Yeah. That's going to be a real easy, kind of relaxing tour with me. I'm
looking forward to hearing some good music. I'm not very familiar with Rusted
Root and Bob Weir. I know I'm looking forward to seeing Keller Williams and
doing some playing with him. I'm hoping to sit in with him.
*That's a perfect example of how you can reach out to that crowd. They're
obviously all rock acts and you're the jazz act on that tour. Comment on how
you'll fit in with that tour anyway.*
I think the cool thing about the jam band scene is it's broken the mold.
There's all these bands of all different types. You go somewhere like Jazz
Fest (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) and you can see just about
anything. The same audience is frequenting all the clubs. It used to be
really weird for me. We'd play and everybody'd be all hyped and then next
it'd String Cheese Incident and they're playing a kind of bluegrass-funk. I'd
just be like, 'What the hell is goin' on here? You people are really into
both these kinds of music.' And I thought it was a phase. I was like, 'Man,
these people can't really be relating to what I'm doing,' but, in actuality,
they were. They were totally able to take me and String Cheese and Bob Weir
and whatever in the same breath and just enjoy it for what it is.
*That's the thing that irks me. The jazz purist not only turns their nose up
to non-traditional jazz after 1969, but they turn their nose up to this young
audience that knows so much more about music than they're ever, ever given
credit for. They're just kind of condemned because some of them have
Exactly. I'm not a Deadhead. I didn't grow listening to those guys. When
I listen to music, I appreciate what's good about it. There's a lot of Dead
recordings that I wouldn't listen to and there's a few that I actually would
listen to. I think it's really helpful as a musician to be able to be a
normal person sometimes and just listen to music for what it is and not put
some kind of a value on it other than if it's good or bad.
*It's like Louis Armstrong said. Jazz purists point to Pops as the DNA of
jazz, and he said it best, man: 'If you can put your foot down to it, it's
Bob Makin has been a music writer for 20 years and covering the jam band
scene since 1988. Jam bands can send him info at firstname.lastname@example.org and
material to PO Box 6600, Bridgewater, NJ 08807.