If there's a golden rule of music journalism, it's this: When you find out a musician has been on tour with the Rolling Stones, it's your duty to ask them about being on tour with the Rolling Stones — and to do it right off the bat. And Karl Denson, the sax player, singer, and bandleader of the jam-jazz-funk outfit Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, spent part of last year on the road with the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band, replacing the late Bobby Keys.
So what was that like? "It's the Rolling Stones," Denson says with a chuckle. "So it was way over the top. It's exactly what you'd expect."
But Denson is quick to praise the band for still being dedicated to their work after more than 50 years. "It's interesting," he says. "You can see their work ethic, their style, how they do things. Even at their age, they work really hard. You'd think they'd kind of be cruising at this point, but they really are still putting in the hours every day, making sure the sound is right. That's what I got from them: Maybe I can work a little harder, you know?"
Despite his modesty, working hard doesn't seem to be an issue for Denson. Since beginning his career in the late 1970s, Denson has alternated between leading Tiny Universe, playing with trio KD3, and serving as a sideman for everyone from jazz players Jack DeJohnette and John Scofield to Gov't Mule and Lenny Kravitz.
Denson's releases with Tiny Universe have traditionally been heavy on virtuosic sax and flute playing, funky grooves, and improv-heavy jams. That is, until last year's New Ammo album, which was the first that Denson released on the San Diego band Slightly Stoopid's label, Stoopid Records. That album boasted a considerably harder edge than Denson's past releases and featured the band leader on guitar, an instrument that the 59-year-old only picked up a few years ago.
It was a switch Denson says he made as part of a continuing effort to become a better, more elemental songwriter. "For me it was really about learning how to simplify my concepts," he says. "A lot of times the songs go in directions that they wouldn't if I didn't have the guitar. It makes things more streamlined in terms of how my parts relate to the other sections. I found that it cleared out a lot of extra stuff in my writing. On a certain level, guitar is super easy. When you learn five songs on guitar, you kind of automatically know 10, because they all pull from those chords of power, that set of changes that rules over everything. Half the songs written in the world use those same chords."
It's a surprising perspective coming from a player who's so skilled on the sax, but Denson says he's been working on a simpler, more direct approach since he began making music. "I think that's been the challenge the whole time," he says. "You make a record then look back on it, and you like some things and don't like others, and the process of refining it is always at the top of the to-do list. When I listen to great music, it's all music that leads you down a very direct path. That's always the path I'm trying to get to."
Denson is finishing up a new album, and he's changed things up yet again, consciously moving away from the heavy riffing of New Ammo in favor of more vocals. "When you've been making albums this long, you generally have an idea going in of what you want to do," he says. "It's too expensive to go in the studio and not know where you're going. You've got to sort that out before you go in — otherwise, it's a waste of time and money. Maybe if I had my own studio, I could be a little looser with it, but the way it is now I have to be pretty planned out. I knew I wanted this album to be more about songs than the playing."
His recordings may change, but onstage, Denson's Tiny Universe is still adept at stretching a groove in different, unexpected directions, with a heavy dose of improvisation. "When you're playing in a smaller group, it leaves a lot more room, but you have to work a lot harder," he says. "With my band now, there's a lot less of me at times — especially with all the vocals — but the improv is more pointed when you have a bunch of people. You have to be a lot more in the mindset of get in and get out."