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Published: 2004/11/30
by Matthew Shapiro

The Challenges of Bridging Karl Denson’s Universe

Despite what the name of his band might lead one to believe, Karl Denson’s musical universe is anything but tiny. In fact Denson and his band have emerged as some of the boldest explorers in the jamband scene. Their live shows are dance party spectacles to behold. They have a knack for transforming any venue they play into an old time juke joint where everyone is up and shaking it, and their late night sets at festivals have become the stuff of legends. Although it might be easy to label the Tiny Universe's sound as funk, it seems there are no musical genres the band is afraid to navigate.

The fact is, Karl Denson's musical universe is ever expanding. While this probably excites their core fans who have come to expect such diversity, and this fusion of such a wide gamut of styles is the key factor in injecting their shows with their unbridled energy, it is also causing Denson and company quite a few problems. These days their main dilemma is trying to mold this wide ranging scope into a cohesive studio album.

Denson admits, "The album thing is weird because we're kind of in the middle of a lot of styles, so we're trying to figure that thing out." He concedes that, "We could go and pump albums out, but we're trying to make that one record, that one album that to me compares to a Wayne Shorter record, or a Bjork album, or a Beck album, that is really current for its time, and also makes sense to everybody. So that's why we haven't just put something out. Right now, we're writing and writing and doing more writing, and figuring out how to produce it the right way."

One of the other problems plaguing Denson, is that while it is true that many musical planets dot his Tiny Universe, there is a clear light they all revolve around, jazz. As Denson proudly states, "I am a jazz musician, that is my first love." While jazz is Denson's passion, and the backbone to his music, it is also a genre that historically has been difficult to market, especially to a young American audience. To compound this problem many jazz purists object to any altering of the genre to make it more accessible. Adding these factors together makes Denson's mission all the more complicated and difficult.

The Tiny Universe's first attempt to merge all their styles onto an album was 2002_The Bridge_. Denson admits that in some ways the album failed to live up to its name, as they could not quite manage bridging their musical universe in a way that made sense to all. "I think The Bridge was a great record, but it was confusing to most people. For jazz people, there was too much vocals, and too soulful. For the radio people it was too jazzy. So, we're trying to bridge that gap. It's a production thing, and getting our minds around how to make it accessible to everybody, and not losing what you do."

Judging from the previous quote it would appear that Denson is concerned with, or has his sights set on crossing over to the mainstream. To which he replies, "I think about cross over only in terms of crossing over to radio, in terms of formatting the music. We're trying to make what we do make sense to everybody. That meaning radio people and the powers that be, they will be able to hear it in a format they can understand."

One of Denson's main goals is returning jazz to its original roots as dance music that can be accessible to all. He calls what the band does "Dance Jazz." To most, the term might seem like an oxymoron, and I asked him how it differs from other types of dance music such as r&b, funk, and hip-hop, which have dominated the genre over the last 30 years. "I consider most American music decedents of jazz. The point being that jazz was originally dance music. People like Buddy Bolin and Louis Armstrong, when they were playing, they had to get people dancing or they'd get fired. It wasn't for the fun of it, or the artistic freedom. It was to make people dance. "

Denson clearly believes people carry many misconceptions about jazz, its purposes, origins and the impact it has had on all types of American music. "I like the fact that rock and roll, funk, soul and hip-hop all came out of that music. Yeah, it (jazz) diverged and became an intellectual thing, but I like thinking of myself on that other trail of artistry, where it's still attached to dance music."

One of the ways Denson has tried to update his form of jazz is by combining it with today's number one dance genre hip-hop thus making it more palatable to younger audiences. The fusing of black America's first dance music and its latest is quite symbolic. Although Denson was one of the originators of this movement with his work with the acid-jazz pioneers the Greyboy Allstars, he is quick to credit hip-hop acts for helping usher in this new/old sound. "These hip-hop producers were sampling all this music first. Acts like the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC were sampling rock records to get the big drum sounds. Eventually they kind of ran out of stuff, so they turned to all the jazz stuff. So, you get acts like Digable Planets, and Tribe Called Quest sampling jazz and opening kid's ears up without them really knowing it."

I mentioned to Denson how we keep new seeing versions of this. I gave the specific example of the semi-traditional instrumental version of "My Favorite Things," which appears an Outkast's The Love Below album. "Exactly!" Denson said. "That's an outgrowth of Digable Planets and Tribe. They started doing that type of recording, and then you get kids looking for the source, and searching out jazz records. What I think is beautiful is that we have come full circle."

Brian Jordan the band's guitarist explains how the fusion of jazz and hip-hop is in many ways a natural progression. "I definitely think it (hip-hop) relates to jazz in a certain extent. Hip-hop in its true form involves improvisation, you have dj's scratching and rappers free styling, and obviously so much of jazz is based an improvisation. "Further more," Jordan continues, "hip-hop is urban music, just as jazz is urban music. So, it relates in that sort of a way. When jazz came about it was a pop rhythm, just as hip-hop is today."

Denson has made a career of trying to do this in reverse by using jazz has a jumping off point for other styles. Obviously the use of vocals has aided him in this quest to bring his music to the masses. "Tiny Universe is an outgrowth of the Greyboy Allstars, as with the fact that I wanted to do more vocals, " explains Denson. "The Greyboy Allstars didn't want to worry about vocals. So, when they broke up or went on hiatus, I wanted to do that. Go from a straight jazz thing with a little vocals, to a straight jazz thing with a lot of vocals."

As far as his lyrics and singing are concerned Denson humbly states, "I'm a better sax player, but for me it was always just a matter of doing what's necessary to make the music make sense. From the whole Allstar or acid-jazz thing, where you had a lot of instrumental music and then just drop a little vocals here and there to relieve the audience. So with this band I wanted to do a lot more of that, so that's where we are."

Another one of the problems facing not only Denson but all dance minded artists, is that trends in dance music come and go rather quickly. Therefore, it is always a constant struggle to remain fresh and contemporary. "Dance music is always an ongoing thing. My friend Elgin (Parks, formerly of Greyboy Allstars) says, drum beats are old in three months.' What he is saying," explains Denson, "is that the dance music on the radio, and that type of thing is old in three months, that's because its attached to dance and people are always looking for a new way to get down. That goes on in Europe and everywhere, but what we got here in America with most of it coming from the old jazz roots, I think it's amazing."

Denson seems to feel the best way to stay current is by taking a step back and searching for what has historically worked, and what is that fabric that stretches from yesterday
to today. He seems to believe that there are certain truths in popular music that will always hold true, and figuring out how to successfully harvest them is the secret to staying fresh. As the Tiny Universe continues their quest to move forward in bringing their amalgam of styles to a broader audience, Denson holds onto this adage of looking back before moving forward and applies it to his role in the band. "The last couple of months, I've been playing a lot more sax on stage, and going with the notion that people like when I play sax. So, I'm going to play sax and then we'll figure out everything else around that, cause that's really what I do. So I've allowed the sax to become more prominent again in my music."

While some of the challenges the Denson and crew face may seem insurmountable Denson clearly sees hope in their mission. One of the silver linings visible to Denson, is that fact that jazz is enjoying a revitalization of sorts, not only with the aid of hip-hop, but in it's purest forms and he is quick to cite how the jamband scene has played a major role in this rejuvenation. "I think if you look what's going on in this scene you got your Galactic, Medeski Martin and Wood, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, Soulive, and others. So, I think jazz is alive and well and it's just taken another step back towards dance."

The band's bassist Ron Johnson explains how the jamband audience in general and the band's audience specifically, "are not into categories, their not always into the hot new thing. Whatever might be going on tech wise, they want to get to the root of music. You always go organic, you have go to the source. I think these people, this jamband audience, whatever you want to label it, because its not just jamband fans, but whatever you want to call it, they're searching and they're keeping live music alive."

While the band enjoys and are extremely grateful to have such an audience, they understand that they are just scratching the surface and there is a much bigger audience out there for the taking. They clearly feel they can reach these untapped listeners if they can succeed in presenting their wide ranging vision in a viable way. While Denson has set lofty goals for him and his mates, in talking to him it becomes clear that he whole-heartedly believes that they have what it takes to reach such high plateaus, and he seems to expect nothing less.

One of the factors that seems to benefit the band the most is the fact that they are under no pressure to put out a new album, and are being given the time to explore and find what they do best. "The cool thing about my new manager," Denson explains, "is he's not fretting all that stuff. He's like as long as you know what you do well, I can deal with that. Don't be confused with a sophomore jinx type of thing, where you try to fit yourself in a square space and you're round. Just move it down, find the round hole, and move down it fast."

While fans wait for the follow up to The Bridge, Denson encourages his faithful to seek out live sets. He especially recommends summer shows from the Roxy Theater in Hollywood CA, and the Rocks Off Concert Cruise from New York City. He has also made recordings of his shows available after most shows. The Tiny Universe will tour into 2005 with no set timetable for their next studio release.

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