VAIL — As we inch closer to spring, some are starting to shed their winter gear, while musician Karl Denson is thinking about purchasing some. A native Californian, he joked that in preparation for his trip to Colorado, it might be “time to buy a peacoat.”
The saxophonist and his group, known as Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, will headline the first of three concerts this month as part of Spring Back to Vail, the area’s annual end-of-season celebration. The festivities kick off on Friday and continue through Vail Mountain’s Closing Day on April 20.
Return of the jazz masters
Denson has played in the Vail Valley multiple times and is excited to be back.
“Colorado is kind of the hub of music, so we always have a great time there,” Denson said.
Denson’s Tiny Universe not only brings the funk, but also the soul, the jazz and the rock ‘n’ roll to each one of their shows. The group is all about getting people to groove, and even after decades as touring musicians, they don’t plan on stopping the beat anytime soon. Seeing as how the concert is free to the public, Denson is looking forward to converting new fans.
“For people who don’t know us, they’ll be surprised like most people are when they hear us,” Denson said. “We spread it out pretty wide as far as styles go. It keeps getting tighter. We’re having a good time figuring out what we’re doing and trying to make it better all the time.”
This attitude of always wanting to improve is what drives Denson to explore beyond the standard jazz and funk repertoire. At 57, Denson is hipper than his own college-aged children, citing Grouplove, Regina Spektor, Wild Belle and Santigold as musical influences. Last year, Denson even learned how to play the guitar, but he realized it took away from practicing the sax.
“The one thing about jazz is the level of confidence that you’re supposed to maintain is high,” Denson said. “If you don’t do that, you get your (butt) kicked. I got my (butt) kicked last year. At Jazz Fest (in New Orleans) I saw Joshua Redmond, and that was the end of my ‘only practicing guitar’ phase. I heard him play, and I left Jazz Fest and went back to where I was staying and started practicing from that moment on.”
It’s funny to imagine famous musicians practicing their scales, but Denson’s not the only one who spends time polishing his playing skills. Fellow saxophonist Roger Lewis, of Dirty Dozen Brass Band, said jazz musicians must “practice for the rest of your life.”
“John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, those cats never stopped practicing,” Lewis said. “I practice all day. I take breaks then go back to practicing. This is something that doesn’t ever end.”
The Dirty Dozen Brass will open for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on Friday. The legendary New Orleans group has been together for 37 years, and Lewis is one of its founding members. The Dirty Dozen are known for getting people to move to the music, which never seems to be an issue in Colorado. The band has a big following state-wide and just shot a live DVD performance in Denver.
“The people love the music so they embrace it,” Lewis said. “It ain’t got nothing to do with what your culture is. When you hear a band, you want to be a part of that culture, that music. People love this music all over the world.”
After almost four decades on the road, Lewis isn’t stopping until the group conquers all the continents.
“(We’ll) play until the casket drops,” Lewis said. “We live to play music, we live to do this.”
Light up the night
Jazz starts off the Spring Back To Vail lineup tonight, but Saturday is all about Colorado’s other popular musical style: EDM. That’s short for electronic dance music for those new to bands who consider a computer their main instrument. Headlining on Saturday will be STS9, also known as Sound Tribe Sector 9, a popular EDM band who have sold out Red Rocks Amphitheater on multiple occasions. Opening for them will be The Polish Ambassador, a one-man electronic band who calls himself the “World’s Funkiest Diplomat.” What makes STS9 stand out from other EDM acts is that they do in fact play instruments, combining the digital beats with some good ol’ fashioned guitar, bass, drums and keyboard. After canceling their winter tour, STS9’s show in Vail will be one of the first with a new lineup, as bassist David Murphy departed the group unexpectedly in January. In a March 25 interview with the Phoenix New Times, drummer Zach Velmer said the band particularly enjoys playing for new crowds and at festivals.
“(We like that it’s) bringing all these people together to dance and have fun and let go,” Velmer said. “We’re honored each and every time we get an offer for a festival, when they want us to come play and be a part of something that’s bigger than us with other hugely talented musicians.”
One of the best parts about STS9’s live performances are their light shows, so be prepared to dance and be dazzled by the strobes on Saturday night.
Reggae for closing day
For many locals, Closing Day isn’t complete without a little reggae. On Sunday, April 20, roots reggae band Steel Pulse will headline, bringing their message of love and justice in musical form to the Vail stage for the first time. Although they sound like they’re from Jamaica, Steel Pulse’s members actually hail from England and were the first non-Jamaican band to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. Opening for Steel Pulse will be local band Bonfire Dub. Lead singer and guitarist Scotty Stoughton said Steel Pulse puts on an awesome live show and is honored to be on the same bill as them.
“(Steel Pulse) is one of the greatest reggae acts of all time,” Stoughton said.
As a musician, long-time local and festival organizer himself, Stoughton said the Closing Day concert always has a little mountain magic to it. Due to the date and all the reggae music, some people might be feeling the effects of something other than the altitude, but Stoughton thinks the crowds will come for the music more than anything. As for the bands themselves, playing on higher ground makes them work harder, rather than kick back and relax.
“Playing in the mountains, you get our best effort because of the lack of oxygen,” Denson said. “It separates the men from the boys right away.”
Speaking of rising to the challenge, Spring Back to Vail is adding a new (or reinvented) event for locals this year, in addition to the annual World Pond Skimming Championships. This Sunday will be the Great Race 2.0 competition, in which teams tackle an obstacle course on Golden Peak that will include snowblade cross, a snow wall, plink and more.
The end of the season is always a little sad, but this year decide to celebrate, not cry, at one of the awesome Spring Back to Vail events. The best part: They’re all free.