“So Much Soul: Karl Denson revives King Ray, while a new Queen of (California) Soul emerges”
Fifteen years have vanished since the late, great King of Soul — Ray Charles — graced a stage in the Aspen area, and even then, his 1999 Jazz Aspen headline performance was cut short due to health issues. But fans of the legendary musician will have a rare opportunity to revel in his live music once more Sunday night, when funky jazz icon Karl Denson brings his Tiny Universe to the Belly Up, where the band (plus the supremely talented vocalist Zach Deputy) will perform the “Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party” tribute. And, in a stroke of luck, local music lovers will get a chance to see a talent that some are calling the new Queen of Soul, Nicki Bluhm, whose red-hot Gramblers will open an evening that portends to be a veritable all-star cast of musicians.
Denson’s band brings the energy of a James Brown or Funky Meters show. The Tiny Universe seemingly knows no bounds when it comes to churning out slinky grooves and fat hooks — whether the source material comes from their own impressive studio catalogue, their jazzy interpretations of tunes by rock and hip-hop bands such as the White Stripes and the Beastie Boys, who don’t necessarily conjure up the idea of funk at first glance, or the expansive and varied catalogue of a cross-genre musical legend like Ray Charles.
The choice to feature the music of Ray Charles on this tour seemed like a natural to Denson, a tenor sax player who does sing as well, only not in that unique, raspy way that Ray did. He knew that he had his man when he heard multi-instrumentalist Deputy conjure The King.
“I grew up loving Ray Charles music, and had been wanting to do this (boogaloo tribute) for a long time. Then I heard Zach sing like Ray and I knew we were onto something,” said Denson from backstage at a recent tour stop, one of about 30 such dates across the country featuring the music of Ray Charles and also supporting an excellent new record of their own, “New Ammo,” released earlier this month.
Denson said that the band will focus on the more upbeat side of Charles’ music. “We like to keep things dancey.” A peek at previous set lists reveal that Ray staples like “King of the Road” and “What’d I Say” should make appearances in Aspen, as well as at least one of Charles’ legendary ballads, the soulful “Georgia on my Mind,” which suits native Georgian Deputy just fine.
Denson was discovered by rocker Lenny Kravitz, who enlisted the prodigious horn talent to play on his early records and tours. That break led to Denson co-founding the acid-jazz outfit Greyboy All-Stars as well as playing in the ska-leaning San Diego band Slightly Stoopid. That variety of genre and popularity of styles here in Colorado has kept Denson on a regular track through the mountains as he tours almost non-stop. “Colorado is a lot of fun for us,” said Denson. “We have a great connection with music fans here. It’s kind of like being at a home away from home.”
As excited as Denson is about the Boogaloo aspect of this tour, he is equally pumped up to play the “New Ammo” material, which is a bit edgier in tone than previous efforts, while remaining rooted in jazz. Part of the reason “New Ammo” works, according to Denson, is that the band really focused on making this a record together. “We set out to make a record that feels like it’s created by all of the members of this band (and not just me,) he says. “We wrote and recorded together and really went for those improvisational jazz elements,” he adds.
The record features several interesting cover tunes — from a rollicking version of the Beastie Boys classic instrumental “Sure Shot,” to a slow-burning version of the White Stripes “7 Nation Army,” a new American standard that Denson thinks highly of. “It’s iconic. Almost a perfect tune. So pure and simple.”
The record also features a totally obscure cover that fans in mountain towns like Aspen will relate to — a song called “Apres Ski.” “Chris (Littlefield), my trumpet player discovered this song on the soundtrack to a French-Canadian film of the same name from the 70’s.”
A highlight of the new record is a song in which the sax-playing Denson takes a turn on guitar and shares the mic with one of the brightest stars in music, the San Francisco-based multi-genre soulstress Nicki Bluhm. “I love Nicki’s voice. She’s a great talent, very calm and collected, and always in tune,” said Denson, who recently shared the stage with Nicki and her stellar band, The Gramblers at the Jungle Jam festival in Costa Rica.
Grambler Deren Ney, whose searing, measured lead guitar work on the Gramblers recently-released self-titled album is reminiscent of the likes of Duane Allman and Warren Haynes, looks forward to the two bands doing a little “grambling” — a loosely used term that was reportedly originated by San Francisco musician Greg Loiacono, guitarist and singer in Nicki Bluhm’s husband Tim’s “other band,” The vastly underrated psychedelic rock band Mother Hips. It means pretty much what it sounds like: grambling about, swapping instruments … basically jamming.
The term can also mean road-tripping, which is something that the band is getting to be pretty good at, despite the brutal weather conditions of late. Several times in the past few weeks Nicki and crew have had to fight through major snowstorms, which was a bit of a shock after returning from the jungles of Costa Rica to the arctic wastelands of Eastern United States this winter.
“Going from the warm beaches to the arctic vortex was a bit jarring. Ice storms, snowy roads, flat tires,” said a chipper-sounding Ney from a roadside motel the band had holed up in to escape terrible road conditions on their way back out west to play a string of shows this weekend, including a slot at the Fillmore with JJ Grey and Mofro and a prime slot at Vail’s Wintergrass Festival on Saturday. “But, then again, touring is pretty much a series of jarring situations, so it’s nothing that we aren’t used to. We see challenges as adventures and think of good solutions. It’s key to be good-natured about it all. We make each other laugh whenever possible. They (the Gramblers) are the funniest people I know.”