Talking with Karl Denson: New Albums, Seattle Family Dinners and the Rolling StonesFebruary 2, 2017
Renowned funk and jazz saxophonist Karl Denson has been a member or recorded with a multitude of musical projects, from Lenny Kravitz’s band, to Greyboy Allstars and the Rolling Stones. However it’s Denson’s personal band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, which was started in 1998, that’s his passion project, he says. They’re playing Nectar Lounge on Saturday, February 4 to a sold out crowd as part of the “Runnin’ with the Diesel” tour.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is made up of Richmond guitarist DJ Williams, Soulive Drummer Alan Evans, Greyboy Allstars’ bassist Chris Stillwell, Crush Effects’ keyboardist David Veith, Seattle trumpeter Chris Littlefield, slide and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman and Denson aka “Diesel” (hence the tour name). It’s one of Nectar’s largest shows to date, and we could not be more excited. We called Denson to learn more about himself and the band, and what fans can expect on Saturday.
Nectar Lounge: I read on your website that you have a forthcoming studio album, due in early 2017. What can you tell us about that? Can we expect to hear new songs at the show?
Karl Denson: Well it’s done! We’re kind of trying to figure out what the rest of the year looks like so we can figure out when to release it. Sometime in the Spring is the plan, I would say Spring, early Summer. It’s a lot different from the last record in that it’s a lot more vocal and more original and it reflects what the band sounds like now. We really are a live band and we spend most of our time touring so the direction of the band and the records and all that are definitely influenced by the growth of the band.
NL: You’ve got two members in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe who are based in Seattle, Chris Littlefield and Seth Freeman. How did you get connected? Will they be taking you around to any must-see spots when you’re here?
KD: Well Chris Littlefield’s been in the band for 16 years. As far as he goes, we’ll just be hanging out with his family. I’ve got to see his kids cause they get all mad if we don’t hang out. So I’ll be having dinner with the Littlefields.
And Seth just joined the band a year ago. He’s actually from Arkansas and lives in Seattle, so he’s an interesting transplant. I think I’m going to spend more time with a saxophone mouthpiece guy in Seattle than anything else, that’s kind of my priority when I get there.
NL: You’ve performed and recorded with a vast number of recognizable artists, of course one of the most noteworthy being the Rolling Stones. Can you talk a bit about what that experience has been like?
KD: You know, it’s been very…it’s just fun. Because they roll so plush. It’s just one of those special treats you get where you go, “Ok this is really fun. This isn’t my life, but their life is really cool.”
NL: Do you have an example of an extra “plush” moment?
KD: Just from the first moment, it’s all first class. First class tickets, 5-star hotels, private jets, football stadiums. It’s the whole thing, it’s just plush. It’s the freaking Rolling Stones!
NL: So with the Stones you’re playing to football stadiums, enormous crowds. What’s the appeal of playing a mid-size venue like Nectar Lounge?
KD: Absolutely none. [Laughs]
NL: Oh no!
KD: No, I like to compartmentalize things, and I love playing music. So that’s the appeal of playing in general. When I’m playing with the Rolling Stones the thrill of playing is that I’m playing with them. It’s not really the crowds. With my band it’s playing to the crowd because it’s my music that they’re gonna hear and my ideas.
NL: We’ve got some big Greyboy Allstars fans here, and I believe the last time they played the PNW was during the 2015 Northwest String Summit. Think we can look forward to a Seattle show in the future?
KD: Definitely. I just sent out rehearsal recordings of the songs to everybody and we are going into the studio in like a week and a half to make a new record. So we are definitely on the horizon as far as doing some more touring.
NL: What would you say is unique about the Tiny Universe project, in comparison to some of your other projects?
KD: This is more of what I want to do, that’s what makes it unique. It’s my vocal ideas, this is my vision. Greyboy Allstars is completely collaborative, it’s a democracy, I don’t have any more say than anyone else in that band. In my band, I get the final word.
NL: What directions then are you taking Tiny Universe that you’re really excited about?
KD: We’re a dance band at heart. I’m trying to mix a lot of things that I like. I like soul and I like jazz and I like rock and roll and I like blues so it’s a mixture of everything. Adding Seth on slide guitar has definitely opened up another little wormhole for the band that we’re getting a really good response from. I started playing guitar four years ago and realized when I started writing things on guitar all of a sudden I wanted a second guitar player. So this (Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe) is my vision and my process and what I do and how I process music that I listen to all the time and figure out how to make it danceable and fun for my fans.
NL: What can folks expect at your Nectar show?
KD: It’s a very complete sound and it’ll feel like it’s really been flushed out well. For the fans that’ve heard the band before, I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised. I think it’s the best iteration of the band so far. And for the fans who haven’t heard it, hopefully they’re going to be blown away.