The D is for Dancing
September 1, 2005
Scan the Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival roster, and it’s thick with instrumental grooves: the cutting-edge New Orleans groove of Galactic, the Afro-Cuban-tinged grooves of Colorado’s Motet, the funk-jazz grooves of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. And the later it gets, the more grooving, with such acts as Particle, the New Mastersounds, Oteil Burbridge & the Peacemakers, Vinyl and two bands with groove in the name – Shanti Groove and Groovespeak – playing their groove-oriented sounds in JAS After Dark shows in various venues.The grooves come from a variety of sources: African rhythms, Cuban son, American soul-jazz of the ’60s. But if there is one figure who can make some claim as godfather over this youngish movement, it is Karl Denson, the 48-year-old saxophonist, singer and leader of Tiny Universe.Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, Denson did a whole lot of high-profile playing. He was part of Lenny Kravitz’s band in the glory days, when Kravitz was making his rock-star records “Let Love Rule” and “Mama Said.” Around the same period, Denson launched his own career as a straight-ahead jazz player. But well before “Chunky Pecan Pie,” his 1994 acoustic jazz record featuring the dream rhythm team of bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Denson had been thinking of busting loose from traditional jazz.”In 1988, in New York, I went and heard Art Blakey, George Coleman for two nights,” said Denson by phone from San Diego, where he was born and raised and still lives. “I remember hearing all that music and it was great music. But it wasn’t my music. I wanted to create my own time.”
At a now semi-legendary moment, DJ Greyboy, a San Diego disc jockey, asked Denson to put together a band to play a CD-release party for his 1993 recording, “Freestylin’.” Denson called upon some fellow local players – keyboardist Robert Walter, drummer Zak Najor, guitarist Elgin Park and bassist Chris Stillwell – who had backed him on his 1992 funk-jazz album, “The D Is for Diesel.” The quintet performed Greyboys’ sampled beats, plus songs selected by Greyboy sure to get the crowd moving: Sly & the Family Stones’ “Let the Music Take Your Mind,” tunes by soul-jazz guitarist Grant Green. The band had too much fun to write it off as a one-night stand, and the Greyboy Allstars were given an extended life.The Greyboys played a regular Wednesday night gig at San Diego’s Green Circle Bar, toured plenty, and released two early albums – “West Coast Boogaloo,” which is what they called their brand of music, and “A Town Called Earth” – that helped bring back the groove. Not that it had disappeared entirely.”It was going on,” said Denson. “But not so much with the bands. There were only a few of us. The acid-groove style was going on with the DJs in the early ’90s.”Denson is hardly claiming all the credit for bringing the style back. But as the Greyboy Allstars made their reputation through the ’90s – and helped bring groove into the jam-band fold – he began hearing from similar bands how much of a model the Greyboys had been.”I know a lot of people, like Eric Krasno, the guitarist from Soulive – I remember meeting him in Boston, back in the day, and talking to him now. And Adam Deitch, the drummer from Lettuce. They told us we were a breath of fresh air when they were in college, even high school,” said Denson. “We definitely helped get kids into playing jazz again.”Playing the straight-ahead, acoustic variety of jazz wasn’t enough for Denson. After leading his quintet for several years, he began feeling the experience – not just the music, but the venues and the audience – was stale.
“I didn’t feel a lot of openness from the audience, to allow the music to experiment,” he said. “I didn’t want to completely be stuck in someone else’s time period. I think it was just wanting the freedom to do what I wanted to do.”And there was a serious financial cap in straight-ahead [jazz].”Probably more than anything, what Denson wanted was for people to dance. And by the ’80s, the time of people dancing to jazz was decades behind. Groove was a way to play jazz-style improvisations and to play to a crowd that resembled a rock show more than a funeral.”It’s dance music,” said Denson. “I always liked dance music. And I always thought of jazz as dance music – I think of the speakeasies, Louis Armstrong’s kind of music. They had to be entertainers, and it wasn’t so self-absorbed.”With the Greyboys, Denson thought he had the best of all worlds. “We were playing dance music in a setting people weren’t really allowed to do that,” he said. “The boogaloo aspect was the focal point. We thought we were getting away with murder.”
Just as the groove came back, the Greyboys folded their tent. After drummer Zak Najor left to attend Bible school, the band did a tour with Alan Evans, from Soulive. But the band couldn’t get in quite the same groove, and the members, tired from the touring and wanting to explore various groove-related directions, turned to side projects. Keyboardist Robert Walter formed Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, while Denson started Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. It is worth noting that Walter and Denson had become big enough names that they were attached to the successor bands. (The Greyboy Allstars had a brief reunion fling, which they brought to Jazz Aspen’s Labor Day Festival in 2003. But after a handful of gigs and no recording, that reunion fizzled out.)But Denson is hardly done grooving. Formed in 1998, Tiny Universe has settled into a steady sextet of guitarist Brian Jordan, bassist Ron Johnson, keyboardist David Veith, trumpeter Chris Littlefield and drummer John Staten. The band has carried on, reputationwise where the Greyboys left off. Tiny Universe has appeared at the Bonnaroo Festival and similar high-profile venues. It is a diverse enough outfit that they have performed at Jazz Aspen’s relatively sedate June Festival, opening several years ago for pure jazz player Diana Krall.Denson, however, hasn’t stopped developing the music. On 2001’s “Dance Lesson #2” – credited to Denson alone, and recorded with none of the current Tiny Universe lineup – it was a familiar, straight-ahead groove. But “The Bridge,” a 2002 album by Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, stretched outward, with bits of spoken word and more singing than a Denson album had ever had. “I think the main thing is incorporating vocals, like really taking that seriously,” said Denson, about what has differentiated his latest band from past groups. It’s been three years since the release of “The Bridge,” but Denson has been working up new material and pondering new avenues. He is most enthusiastic about the prospects of working with Charlie Peacock, a Nashville producer known best in the Christian music world.”Really, it’s just a process of learning more stuff,” said Denson. “The best thing about what’s going on right now is I got hold of Charlie Peacock, so I have a producer for the first time in years, fleshing out ideas.”Among those ideas are more of an electronica element. “Lately my tastes have been more about electronica,” said Denson. “I’ve been listening to Bjork; a band, Feist; this group out of Nashville, Venus Hum. That’s where my tastes lie now.
“Other than that, we’re doing the same thing, trying to create some nice, fat grooves.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org