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Funk It: Karl Denson, formerly of the Greyboy Allstars and Tiny Universe, brings his new trio to Moe's Alley on Thursday.

Karl Denson's Big World

The former Greyboy Allstar and citizen of the Tiny Universe breaks out with a new trio.

By Andrew Gilbert

Sit him down in the middle of a polka band and Karl Denson would find a way to put it in the pocket and make it groove. Over the past decade, the saxophonist and flutist has been at the center of the horn-driven funk universe, starting with acid jazz scene progenitors the Greyboy Allstars, and then his hard-grooving combo Tiny Universe. Lately, however, Denson's instrumental constellation has really shrunk, as he's taken to touring with the KD3 power trio featuring Giant People organist Anthony Smith and drummer Jack Najor, best known for his term of office in Robert Walter's 20th Congress. "I'm a challenge-oriented person," says Denson, who celebrates the release of KD3's debut album Lunar Orbit on Thursday at Moe's Alley.

"I like the trio from that standpoint, because writing-wise it's really a challenge to evolve my concept in a small group, the concept being playing something interesting and still having people dance. I like the muscularity of it, having to play the whole time."Lunar Orbit features a series of lean tunes far more sinewy than anything generated by the busier Tiny Universe. Denson decided to step away from that popular ensemble due to a series of changes in management and personnel, coupled with the need to generate new material for a recording.

"We just needed a break, I needed a break," Denson says. "I needed to do something else and recharge. Doing the trio has really allowed me to be a lot more clear about what I want Tiny Universe to be when I reform it."

Denson first gained widespread notice in the early 1990s as a featured soloist with Lenny Kravitz, particularly his 1991 sophomore release Mama Said. Among jazzheads, however, Denson earned his stripes with a series of soul-drenched albums for the German label Minor Music, both as a leader and with JB Horns trombonist Fred Wesley. Starting with his 1991 release Blackened Red Snapper, a mostly straightahead hard bop session, Denson displayed real facility for improvising over chord changes.

By far his most impressive album was 1994's Chunky Pecan Pie, an inventive trio session featuring bass legend Dave Holland and trap set maestro Jack DeJohnette. Rising to the occasion, Denson delivers a steady stream of tasty ideas, offering a contemporary take on the soul jazz tradition. And when JB Horns/Funkadelic tenor sax hero Pee Wee Ellis joins the fray on Blue-eyed Soul, Denson gleefully dishes the grease.

"More than anything, that record was about me figuring out a way to get Jack to play how I wanted him to play," Denson says. "I wrote 'Is It a Bell?' to watch Jack blow up. At the rehearsal I gave him a little instruction: 'It's a backbeat tune, but don't worry about the backbeat.' Once we started playing, I was so embarrassed 'cause of course he killed it. His funk is insane, loose and weird, but so funky."

It was his love of infectious boogaloo grooves that led Denson to launch The Greyboy Allstars, a band that grew up around his collaboration with San Diego turntablist DJ Greyboy. The group built a large, avid following through incessant touring, though eventually the Allstars' success on the road made developing new material difficult. As its creative energy started to wane, the band decided to take a hiatus so members could pursue solo projects.

Last April the Allstars released What Happened to Television?, the group's first studio album in a decade. The original cast is reassembling next month for a tour that includes San Francisco's Fillmore on Dec. 14. The band's sound has evolved, as has the scene that it helped to create, but Denson's lithe, insinuating horn work has never strayed far from its terpsichorean imperative.

"There were a handful of bands, and we made a big impression on the scene right at the beginning along with Liquid Soul and MMW," Denson says, referring to Medeski Martin and Wood. "We had our thing, our own concept, and carved our own little niche with West Coast boogaloo. I think the transition from early acid jazz scene to jam band scene, planning shows around Phish and Widespread Panic, was a management idea that really worked, that created a whole other situation that's still working out today."

THE KARL DENSON TRIO performs Thursday, Nov. 29, at 9:30pm at Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $15/$20; 831.479.1854 or

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