Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Newport Music Hall, Columbus, OH- 11/5
Having seen Karl Denson's Tiny Universe open for Ratdog and the String Cheese Incident in the past, I was happy to hear that the band's first appearance in Columbus would be as a headliner. Karl and his band would have unlimited opportunities to really stretch things out in the Newport Music Hall, which recently has become a full fledged Jamband playground, and this excited me because they wouldn't have to limit themselves to a forty sixty minute opening slot like I had seen before. With a peaceful stuffed Kuala bear overlooking everything from atop John Staten's drum kit and pleasant smelling incense burning on Ron Johnson's bass amp, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe treated the audience to over two hours of all out fusion jazz funking.
The opening song entitled "Rich Man's" was an ultra tight jazz song that served as a perfect warm-up for both the band and the crowd. During the song visual psychedelic madness and random photos of the band were displayed on a giant video screen. This video screen was a perfect backdrop for the band and provided stimulation for the eyes as the Tiny Universe simultaneously stimulated the rest of the body. Although the band played without a giant light show, the video backdrop was just as entertaining as any light show I have ever seen in the Newport. "Rich Man's" got the crowd moving with solos by Karl Denson on saxophone and Brian Jordan on guitar. "Apparently Nothing" came after the opening jazz instrumental and provided Karl Denson with his first chance to show his growing vocal range. During "Apparently Nothing" Karl's vocals sounded fantastic and he also added accenting beats and rhythms on various cow bells and other percussion instruments. Throughout the entire show whenever the rest of the band went into a jam Karl Denson and fellow horn player Chris Littlefield would grab various percussion instruments and add to the band's groove. This very effectively provided extra layers to the rhythm section.
The high paced song "New York City" followed "Apparently Nothing" and was the first example of all out improvisational jamming that the band displayed. The song was drenched with climaxes building tension within the song until it must be released. With Karl leading the way, the band would build one segment of the song to a dizzying extreme and then release it back to the original theme of the song. At times during "NYC" Brian Jordan made his guitar sound like a DJ scratching on a turntable rather than playing a standard rhythm guitar part, he would then explode into a solo which made his guitar playing more impressive and interesting overall. "The Clap" was the band's next exploration into free form improvisation. Once again Brian Jordan's guitar work was impressive. His guitar provided the main melody and rhythm for the song and after each band member had a chance to lead the jam with a solo during the song, they would go back to Jordan's central guitar theme. This trading off of solos provided an excellent catalyst for true "free form funk". The only member that did not take a solo during the song was bassist Ron Johnson, but he more than made up for it by providing a steady stream of hypnotic bass lines. Johnson never strayed too far from his original groove even when the rest of the band was examining the most extreme points of their "tiny universe" of music, and this provided the band a solid framework that they could always fall back on. The most explosive solos during the free form jam out of "The Clap" were by Karl on flute and John Staten on drums. Karl's flute sounded flawless and added a contrasting element of sound to the rest of the band's heavy groove. Staten's drum solo was highlighted by some fantastic double bass drum action. By having two bass drums instead of the normal one bass drum setup, Staten was able to rumble some heavy low notes with extraordinary velocity.
After slowing down the show with a silky smooth version of "Everything" the Tiny Universe jumped into two songs, "Satisfied" and "Bunny Playa", from their latest album entitled The Bridge. "Satisfied" began with Chris Littlefield playing jazzy trumpet melodies over a funky Latin samba groove and then really took off with Karl playing a flute solo while David Veith added some rich vamps on the organ. "Satisfied" built into an all out jam by the end that was dominated by some Ron Johnson’s bass. Over the next few songs the members of Hairy Apes BMX, the band that opened the show came onstage and played drums, other percussion instruments, and organ respectively. This communal jamming turned out to be the highlight of the concert. After a short rendition of "Bunny Playa", that was full of swells of volume that led to a start/stop segment, the band played an instrumental number composed by jazz drummer Joe Chambers called "Hopscotch". Bassist Ron Johnson switched to a stand-up bass for this song and the change added an entire dimension of sound to his bass playing. During "Hopscotch" and the jam that ensued, Johnson was able to create a hypnotic vibe while at the same time adding a layer of ambience to the music as the Tiny Universe blasted off into the stratosphere. "Hopscotch" contained moody sections of music that were greatly affected by the different percussion instruments- the overall feel of the "Hopscotch" jam was very loose, improvisational, and ambient. Brian Jordan played a few great guitar lines during one of the more "spaced-out" sections that sounded very melodic, almost like he was going to bust into "A Few Of My Favorite Things" at any moment. The "Hopscotch" jam lasted for at least twenty minutes and then Karl stepped up to the microphone and said they had time for one more short song, then the band proceeded to play Edgar Winter’s instrumental "Frankenstein". As scenes from the movie Tron played on the video screen backdrop, the Tiny Universe nailed the 1970's classic rock anthem. John Staten played a terrific double bass drum solo during the drum break and the band drove home the hard-edged groove closing out a superb night of music. For an encore the band played a Funkadelic inspired version of the 1970's disco hit "Talkin' Bout Love". It was a fittingly funky end to the show that left me dancing like Travolta on my way out into the cool fall night.