Karl Denson's Tiny Universe
August 26, 2017
You don't hear much talk of "The Energy Crisis" anymore. That's because Karl Denson's Tiny Universe has been on the scene, lighting things up and generating gigawatts of energy with its frequent funk fusillades. Over the course of their two hour set Saturday night, the Tiny Universe brought the funk, brought the energy and brought the fun.
The Tiny Universe is all about the funk. Theirs is a sound similar to the Crusaders
which was a band that seamlessly merged the worlds of funk and jazz. The Tiny Universe tends to have a bit harder edge, however; a touch more intensity; maybe a little more rock. The rhythm section is obviously key for this type of music and the funk foundation Saturday night was provided by Alan Evans
on the drums and Chris Stillwell on the bass who, like Denson, is also a member of the Greyboy Allstars
. Evans' syncopated snare shots and cymbal smashes supported the perpetual grooves. Stillwell's generally stoic stature belied the dance-inducing bass lines he continually pounded out.
Denson's woodwinds and Chris Littlefield's trumpet gave the Tiny Universe its most obvious jazz anchor. Denson tripled on tenor, alto and flute as well as vocals and emcee duties. Like the Crusaders with Wayne Henderson
's trombone and Wilton Felder
's sax, Denson and Littlefield frequently played unison horn lines over the feverish funk foundation. Denson's main axe is the tenor with occasional turns on the flute. He only played alto a couple times, but when he did the parallels with another funk forefather, Maceo Parker
became all the more clear. While Parker's lines tend to be short staccato shots, Denson tends to explore longer, more intricate lines.
The Tiny Universe currently features two guitarists, DJ Williams and Seth Freeman. They provided plenty of foundational fortification with scratchy rhythms augmenting the bass and drums. Each had ample opportunities for soloing and displaying their individual voices. Freeman tended toward more of a rock sound while Williams had more of a jazz influence. Those are just generalizations because while the Tiny Universe may be tiny, it's versatile. Williams' solo on the band's original, "So Real" sounded a bit like Dickie Betts on the Allman Brothers Band's "Blue Sky." Other times, Williams simply settled for forking forth further fistfuls of funk.
The Tiny Universe was adept at creating climaxes, particularly with guitar solos. Often, one of the guitarists would begin with a slow simmer, gradually rise to a subtle boil and by the time he reached criticality, the horns were dancing on top with short, sharp unison lines. The guitarists had some unison, harmony lines of their own worked out. And, in the something-you-don't-hear-everyday department, Freeman threw in several slide guitar solos over the fortified funk. David Veith held down the keyboard chair adding several Hammond B-3 solos as well as consistent growling chords.
Besides leading the Tiny Universe and playing with the Greyboy Allstars, Denson, in his spare time, is also a Rolling Stone. He explained that he was leaving for Europe the day after the concert to join the Stones on their European tour. Their long-time sax man, Bobby Keys, passed away in 2014. He had famously played the saxophone solo on "Brown Sugar" as well as "Can't You Hear Me Knockin,'" both from Sticky Fingers
(Rolling Stones Records, 1971) and toured with the band the last few years of his life. Saturday night, Denson promised not to forsake the Tiny Universe and committed to getting the band back together in November. Denson has played with the Stones on tour in recent years.
Denson's Stones status inspired a couple covers Saturday night, "Tumblin' Dice" and "Between the Sheets." "Tumblin' Dice" was a bit of a let-down at first following all the high powered funk that had preceded it, but it strengthened as it progressed, helped by a Denson flute solo and Littlefield's trumpet playing.
The set list included several band originals, "Satisfied," "Because of Her Beauty," "Dance Lesson #2," "My Baby Likes to Boogaloo" and the new tune, "I'm Your Biggest Fan." The non-Stones covers were an interesting mix. "Just Got Paid" is a vintage Z.Z. Top song from their second album Rio Grande Mud
(London 1972). That blues-rock tune benefited greatly from the 133% increase in the size of the band (trio versus septet). That one featured Freeman on lap steel guitar. Donavan's "Sunshine Superman," performed as an instrumental, was an extended solo vehicle and adding the funk to the hippie vibe improved the original nicely.
Toward the end of the concert, Denson confessed that he suffers from "eclecticism," which is the state of being interested in too many kinds of music. As maladies go, this is a pretty good one. And, when it's combined with an inexhaustible energy source, it's fiercely fulfilling fun.