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Cool is back

Andrew Harley
Special to the Daily Karl Denson's Tiny Universe show their chops tonight at 8150 in Vail at 10.
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Don’t be embarrassed if you haven’t taken dance lessons, like rose-colored glasses the atmosphere created by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (KDTU) can make anyone look good.

Denson and his Tiny Universe spring from the musical traditions that redefined the word “cool,” like jazz, funk, R&B, blues, soul and fusion.

KDTU drenches the valley in hip music tonight at 8150 in Vail at 10.

“We are writing songs. We just did a tour, and finished off six new tunes. I just wrote one yesterday, working on some lyrics at the moment. We’ve been sitting on a record, which has been put on hold as far as not having a record deal and changing management, so we decided, ‘Okay, let’s start playing ’em.'”

KDTU released “The Bridge” in 2002. The album showed a great range of tunes, from Curtis Mayfield cover “Check Out Your Mind” to a Fela Kuti tribute called “Freedom” that included work by Saul Williams and Michael Franti.

Denson’s current songwriting focuses more on structure and accuracy than his previous work.

“(Compared to ‘The Bridge’) I’d say they’re (the new tunes) a little more down tempo and a little bit more rock-oriented,” said Denson. “Writing songs like these is a lot more disciplined; it’s more thoughtful.”

Denson is the main man on sax, Chris Littlefield plays trumpet, David Veith holds down the keys, Ron Johnson blares an electric bass, Brian Jordan plays electric guitar and John Staten keeps them all together on drums.

“With music, I just like the fact that you can’t get to the end; you can’t graduate, you got to stay in school,” said Denson. “I just like my job. I think that’s a blessing, the fact that I have something that I like to do, that I can make a living at and, therefore, I want to do a good job at it.”

Denson got his start with Lenny Kravitz back in 1989. He laid down some horn work on “Let Love Rule” and “Mama Said.” He went on to work with DJ Greyboy and James Brown hornman Fred Wesley.

“To make a living as a musician was definitely a goal. Back in ’92, we did that ‘Home Cookin” record, and that made it to the jazz clubs, which was a big dream of mine to have a tune being played in the dance clubs,” said Denson. “That’s still a dream that I’m after right now with my band is to have some kind of popular recognition; to make a groove that kind of crosses the boundaries.”

Denson’s typical week on the road includes a couple hours of practice per day, but at home, Denson spends more time writing – anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week.

“By learning how to play saxophone well, I’m actually enjoying my playing now, which has always been a goal. You start out as a kid playing your horn and you listen back to it on a recording and you’re like, ‘Ah, man. That sucks.’ So to finally be enjoying my own playing when I hear it back is definitely a dream come true,” said Denson.

Denson’s resume includes collaborations and stage sharing with most of today’s most popular and renowned artists, but he gives the nod to his band as his favorite people to play with.

“We’ve spent a lot of time putting our heads together trying to create our sound,” said Denson.

Recently, he did a B.B. King jam session in San Francisco with Rodney Holmes, Chris Thiele, Steve Kimock and a young bass player who got the gig by making a call. The group brought in tunes, including one Denson wrote the night before.

“I brought the same tune to the Greyboy Allstars a few days later, and we did a whole other thing with it. Working with the Allstars is always a fun collaboration because those guys are super creative and really on their game,” said Denson.

Lately, Denson’s been loving Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead. He has put time into many instruments, including more brass and the piano, but he admits he’s not well-versed when it comes to guitar.

“I have a real love for guitar. By not being a guitar player, there’s an understanding that I’m trying to get to about the guitar,” said Denson. “When you sing something to somebody, you don’t have any hands-on experience and you want them to get it from your perspective, that’s hard. I really depend on a guitarist to understand the things I’m trying to communicate when I say, ‘It’s like a Jimi Hendrix thing or a Radiohead thing.’ I really like Radiohead’s take on guitar and the way Jimi’s chords work throughout a song.

“Another thing I’d like to be doing is some more contracted writing – film scores, TV scores, whatever,” said Denson. “I’d like to be writing some tunes for other people where I’m seen as a composer and people either ask me to do work for them or collaborate with them.”

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays 8150 tonight at 10. Denson switches gears on Sunday to team up with the Greyboy Allstars on Sunday for a free show at the base of Copper Mountain at 2:30 p.m.

“I like playing bigger room because it’s harder to pull off. Really, what you’re trying to do is make a big room feel like a smaller one. Once you get to a certain point, you’re able to make a small room electric,” said Denson. “Playing a lot is a big key to working together and improvising on stage. It’s about trying to relax, being able to depend on each other and support each other. It’s a constant learning experience for any band; learning how to be creative without being distracted.”

Andrew Harley can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext.610, or at aharley@vaildaily.com.


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