Lunar Orbit – Karl Denson Trio
Whether he's holding a tenor sax or a flute, Karl Denson's a pretty big guy, and conventional knowledge tells us that it's best to give a big guy his space. Since founding boogaloo juggernaut the Greyboy Allstars 15 years ago, touring with Lenny Kravitz, and fronting his own Tiny Universe, Denson's Sonny Rollins-meets-Maceo Parker sax assault is still elbowing for greater breathing room. After a spring Greyboy album that found him uncharacteristically reticent, Denson formed a power trio (in keeping with the spirit of 2007), dubbed it his lunar vehicle, and prayed it would give him the space to properly flex the colossal chops he's built between those colossal biceps.
"Lunar Orbit," the opening, title track, begins with the promise of a Wayne Shorter-esque NASA voyage. The structural potential sounds quantum as Anthony Smith's wandering organ seeks to establish harmonic footing in the song's first seconds, but as phased drums (from Jake Najor) lead into heavy synth bass and a rigid, ostinato organ part, the track shifts into an electronic canvas for Denson's caterwauling flute. While it's clear that space (and spatial) exploration is the goal here, all we really get is a planetarium rendition of the cosmos. The vamp turns rough and a touch sluggish with time, its predictable melodic motif rendered infectious (in the trying sense) with repetition. With the band playing, through electronic voices, roles that would be better suited to a straight jazz trio, the celestial soundscape seems only half-realized. Only some late flute flourishes save the track's narrative arc and infuse a bit of thrust.
As the disc proceeds, "Break Me Down" brings a bit more melodic invention, but materializes, sadly, in the form of post-Weather Report jazz/fusion. Despite some spacey Rhodes and an upbeat stomp, the groove never really digs deep enough to move a funkster or loosen ties in a dentist's office. As big as he may be, Denson doesn't mind smoothing it out. "Won't Somebody" is the kind of smarmy milktoast that funks only so hard to make untrained ears associate every syncopated saxophone tune with the Weather Channel. This isn't, of course, to say that Denson lacks soul. He's been one of the great pushers in the great neo-soul/jazz renaissance of the past 15 years. But, while pairing down his ensemble was meant as an adventurous step into creative space, the result is reserved, safe playing — as if the brink the three musicians toe only descends a few feet into peat moss.
The real boogaloo doesn't arrive until track seven, "Ghetto Fireworks (Pt. 2)." The similarity it bears to standard Greyboy fare is helpful, but, most importantly, it heralds the arrival of some healthy reckless abandon, that, in turn, seeps into late tracks like "That Other Thing," and "Ghetto Fireworks (Pt. 3)," while reminding us why we know Karl Denson's name in the first place.
Maybe Karl Denson has just become a realist. True to the astronomical term, a Lunar Orbit can yield glimpses of only one side of the moon at various degrees of exposure. Once a month that big wheel of cheese doesn’t show itself at all, but only then can one truly see how big the cosmos really are. If improvisational music can learn anything from space exploration it’s that space is a pretty big place and the moon is mighty close to home.