Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Ashland Armory, Ashland, OR- 2/14
Photo by Marc Shapiro
Karl Denson’s been around a few decades and knows how to surround himself with solid musicians. His Tiny Universe put on a big show. Soulful, seductive jazz, with a heavy dose of funk, spattered the walls of the Ashland Armory. They combated the external pitter patter of torrential rains with an equally matched storm of rhythmic breath and limbs thrown to the current to ride the flavorful grit of muddy waters to the ocean with style.
The climax performance of a titillating and funky, Valentine’s Day party in the small town of Ashland, Oregon, they played with the vigor, intensity and skillful showmanship of a big city venue. There was a depth to the performance that showcased the various talents without passing a baton from man to man, but more like emerging ripples from the same pond—every now and then a splash but always returning to the cohesive pool. Sticky, integrated sounds, were bound and woven, in the sinews of notes. Collaborations of harmonized vocals and horns gave the band a collective life more powerful than its parts.
Though its parts had flare. The newest addition, DJ Williams, coaxed spectacular sounds out of the guitar’s strings that matched the attitude and echo of the horns. The bassist stalked the low notes with crazy eyes, digging in with a sultry predator grit and grind.
Denson’s high energy vocals led a collaborative rally, high-stepping up a football field. Funky, soulful; punching the air. I don’t know what we were gathering for but I wanted to make picket signs and march out the door calling a response to whatever it was he pumped into that mic. Other times jazz swirled around the room. Bodies shifted like tectonic plates shimmying under indecision. The guitar scratched a record and lit a fire. The sax and trumpet blew holes in the walls. Drums gave a solid backbone to the eclectic onslaught and drove the pace to perspiration. Keyboard flows connected the seams and played tag with the horns.
Karl Denson, the leader, and a good one, often times rocked a cow bell or tambourine, taking a backseat in rhythm, while at other times, exploded on the saxophone or flute. His build was nothing short of athletic. He could squeeze whole watermelon’s straight to juice between those well developed limbs, but placed sax, flute and small percussion tools in that grip instead. The force of great power filtered through delicate sounds tickled my mind.
When he did pick up the horn or flute, he did it like a man who’d fasted for days, and now devoured metal and brass. A ravenous corn on the cob massacre of wind powered instruments ensued on stage. He chewed the air around the woodwinds’ mouth in high-speed, time-lapse mandible action, of what must have been days strewn together, into a few minutes. He breathed words and air together to a batter of sound. When the flute first came out, I must admit, I was a little bored. It was jazzy and good, but hung low in the ether and aged the music. The band stretched their songs this evening (earning a jamband gold star) and by each song’s end, the flute had evolved a new life and left my jaw on the ground cracked under a foot that couldn’t help pounding itself to the rhythm of hard, ecstatic rock billowing out of that dainty edge-blown aerophone. The tambourine had long ago been thrown, unceremoniously, to the ground. No time to transition smoothly. This storm was propelled by sound and there was no catching up, just grabbing the next instrument and meeting it with the breathless exertion of musical athletes running an earthquake through this little town on the night of a flood.