ON the Beat | Crusader on the Jazz-Jam-Funk Trail

Funk-Jazz-Jam Band Saxist Karl Denson Brings His Band Tiny Universe Back to SOhO

Trombone Shorty and his band perform at the Santa Barbara Bowl. | Credit: Matt Perko

Trombone Shorty’s moniker is strictly tongue-in-cheek, as a full Bowl audience was reminded last Saturday night. The New Orleans-ian star, once in showman mode, is a tall and endlessly kinetic presence.

In related stature-linked news, jam band scene-making tenor saxist Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe may seem anything but tiny. Denson, who brings his funkified unit back to Soho August 18, summons a big sound on his horn and his band summons up grooves which manage to be both punchy and hypnotic. It’s a Denson-ian tradition going back twenty years, after his band Tiny Universe became a personally-led band following up on the “acid jazz” ventures of the Greyboy All-Stars in the late ‘90s.

Karl Denson | Credit: Courtesy

In an interview, Denson traces the lineage of his band name, explaining that “we call this music the tiny university. I was always trying to get my guys to know the history of music. By knowing more about it and being able to really put your hands around it, you’re able to evoke certain things at certain times. You know, it’s a huge challenge. I think part of it is that musically, everybody’s still in the tiny university, which means I’m throwing a lot of stuff at them, as far as styles of music go.”

For Denson, the challenge is finding the ideal recipe and balance between jazz elements and the all-important funk and groove machinery at the core. Going back to his own formative years, Denson says “I was listening to soul when I was a kid, through my brothers and sisters. Then I became a jazz fan in junior high school through high school, listening to mainly jazz. Then, I started getting my rock and roll thing on in high school, listening to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and stuff like that. It has been super eclectic, and it’s kind of a maddening thing, in some ways.”

Trombone Shorty joined the audience during his perfornance at the Santa Barbara Bowl. | Credit: Matt Perko

After a youthful epiphany with his love of jazz, he realized the jazz life, in itself, was a hard road. “From that point on,” he recalls, “I always thought, ‘Well, I’ll look for a pop gig and that will finance my love of jazz.’ That’s kind of how I always thought about it. Doing the Lennie Kravitz period, it came to a point where I had worked with him and a couple of other singers, and I realized that singers are kind of crazy.”

Subsequently, Denson, now 65, has amassed a resume including work with an impressive roster of “singers,” and pop musicians, including the Kravitz, the Rolling Stones, Slightly Stoopid, Phil Lesh and Friends, and others. But his Tiny Universe beckons on the sidelines. The KDTU story continues with the release of a new album Gnomes & Badgers (on the Seven Spheres Records label). He enlisted such luminary friends as Stones pianist Chuck Leavell, Lukas Nelson and Ivan Neville to lend hands in the cameo department. Yes, Denson is well-connected, and not in any tiny way.

Sign up for ON the Beat, Josef Woodard’s semi-weekly newsletter preaching the gospel of eclectic music tastes.


Hot Tuna | Credit: David Bazemore

At what point does a band become timeless? The question gets fuzzy on a few fronts in the case of Hot Tuna, which breezed past its 50-year-mark in 2019. Then again, the special brew of country and blues elements already sounded historic and “out of time” when Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady busted out of their Jefferson Airplane day gig to chase the Tuna in the early ‘70s.

Fast forward to the band’s latest show in the complementary room of the Lobero last week, and the trio (now with drummer Justin Gulp) served up a three-hour dose of what it is they do. That certain something includes both gutsy and exploratory soloing, on acoustic and electric guitars and on Casady’s loopy sound on his semi-hollow body bass, and Kaukonen’s friendly mumble of a vocal style, a back porch-y singspiel which never wears out its welcome.    

They moved fluidly through the traditional blues fare of “Hesitation Blues,” “Parchman Farm,” and “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” into the sweeter stuff of the country-blues “Let Us Get Together Right Down Here.” As a savory encore, the instrumental “Water Song” flowed like optimistic honey in a time, 50 years later, much in need of the same.

Hot Tuna | Credit: David Bazemore

Support the Santa Barbara Independent through a long-term or a single contribution.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.