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Inside the Universe: The soul, funk and faith of Karl Denson

The soul, funk and faith of Karl Denson.


"You don't see Clark Kent and Superman at the same time, do you?" asks Karl Denson from his home in San Diego, the city where he's lived for the past 15 years.

He's talking about the difference between the saxophone and flute master's two bands, the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, the latter of which is coming to Bend this weekend and has also just released its first full-length record in seven years. Denson's name is always associated not only with the jazz, blues and funk genres, but he also pulls some weight in the jam band and dance club circuits, with both Greyboy and his Tiny Universe playing well in all of those camps.

While fans might not see Greyboy and the Tiny Universe in the same place or same time, they've definitely see a bunch of both acts as of late. Greyboy released a record in 2007 and followed it up with some lengthy tours and Tiny Universe seems to be burning up the road this year, hitting up festivals this summer and touring as a headliner through the holidays. In the end, the two acts are different animals, although both keep this acclaimed musician endlessly busy.

"The Greyboy Allstars is a lot less stressful in terms of me having to run everything because it kind of runs itself. The Tiny Universe is a lot more work for me, but it's my project so I get a lot more enjoyment out of it when it goes well," says Denson.

And things are going well with the Tiny Universe right now. Two weeks ago, the naturally muscle-bound Denson (he says he's never lifted weights in his life) released Brother's Keeper, an 11-track LP that marks the first record from the Tiny Universe since 2002's The Bridge. The new album will almost certainly surprise a few fans in the fact that, well, it's not all that funky. Yes, you can still dance to it, and dance quite feverishly at that, but on Brother's Keeper, Denson shelved the funk power on which he's built his reputation for a deeper, more soulful sound.

"This record is really about me writing the best songs I can and trying to produce them to fit into the Tiny Universe format," says Denson, "The way we recorded it was like an old Motown record."

Motown has been a nearly life-long influence on Denson, whose older siblings would play soul records for him growing up - that is until he started playing saxophone at age 13. And that wasn't to join the marching band, but to play jazz music.

"I was a jazz kid and I avoided the whole marching band thing because I was gigging on the weekends by the time I got to high school...they didn't want to depend on me because I would probably flake if I had a gig," says Denson, who studied to be a veterinarian in college before realizing his music-heavy class and gigging schedule was going to make that pursuit difficult.

Brother's Keeper is more structured and far less built out of improvisation than earlier Denson works, seeing as how the bandleader charted out all the songs himself before taking his uber-talented outfit into the studio. Denson found an unlikely collaborator for the record in fellow San Diegan (and Greyboy Allstars fan) Jon Foreman, the front man for alt-rock band Switchfoot, with whom he co-wrote several tracks. Foreman's "Drums of War" appears on the record, a song Denson, a practicing Christian, chose to include as a message to the religious right after watching that faction "brazenly" cheer for the US to head to war.

Although tighter and maybe even more focused than the Tiny Universe of the past, it's still hard to ignore the possibility of what the cuts from Brother's Keeper will sound like on stage, because whether it's Clark Kent or Superman, funk or soul, Karl Denson will make you dance.

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

8pm doors, 9pm show. Sunday, October 4. Domino Room, 51 NW Greenwood Ave. $18/advance, $20/door.
All ages. Tickets at Ranch Records or

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