The saxophone has had a lot of great men and women who have performed on it. In the modern world of rock, jazz, funk, soul, and jam — one of the absolute legends on the sax is Karl Denson. For the past 30 years Denson has blazed a path of sax-laden glory — performing as a solo artist, a collaborator, and a sideman. From sharing the stage with Mick and Keith to fronting his own “Tiny Universe.”
Recently we caught up with Denson to talk about his new record, his long career in the music world (and how it has changed since he broke in), and playing with The Rolling Stones.
This new album, Gnomes and Badgers. What can you tell me about how it came together? The musicians involved, the process, bringing it all into a cohesive whole?
The title came together late actually, after the record was already done. The band kind of determined how the record came together. I feel like I really have my band dialed in right now, we’re having a lot of fun playing. Back to basics, letting people do what they do and enjoying that. I feel like the configuration is correct. So most of this record was from the third session, and we did four. We did one in San Diego at our regular studio and six months later we went to Austin with Adrian Quesada from Brownout, and Grupo Fantasma, he helped produce it.
So we did a bunch of songs there, then went to Nashville and did some other songs with Ivan (Neville) and Anders Osborne, and then from that stuff, we put together a record, but it wasn’t concise, it didn’t quite make sense. So we kind of shelved it for a while, and then the band kind of started hitting on all cylinders. I got Zak [Najor] back, my favorite drummer in the world, in the process, from the Greyboy Allstars. Then from there we just put all these songs together, and about a year ago, just knocked out like eight or nine tunes in a couple days. I could walk into the studio with a melody, and we could flesh it out. The band has really come together in that way, where we are really comfortable with making music together.
You are known for working with all kinds of collaborators. Do you ever find yourself adjusting how you play or write your sections according to the musicians around you?
Yes, but not consciously. I think between the drums and the guitar is the critical component. I feel if I have the right drummer I will naturally write funkier things that I know will be interpreted correctly. I feel like that is very inspiring, to know that when you sing something to somebody that they’re going to play what you really want to hear.
The guitar situation was really interesting, because I’ve always really wanted a rock and roll thing since I started playing guitar a few years ago. DJ [Williams], my main guitar player, he is really a funk guy. So it was always kind of a stretch trying to get a rock thing out of this band; and then I found Seth Freeman up in Alaska (who is from Arkansas) and he’s a great slide player in the Duane Allman tradition. So after getting him settled into the band, that’s when it became easy to do what I’m doing. Because I can write how I write, and know that there will always be those elements done correctly on top of it. So we’re playing funk, but we’ve got that rock and roll thing stirred around in there all the time.
You mentioned in the press release for Gnomes and Badgers your interest in politics, and also the idea that the album title can be seen as sort of a metaphor for the left/right dichotomy, or whatever you want to call it. In your opinion, what is it about music, rather than other forms of expression, that lends itself to easing tension and getting people able to have conversations?
I think you could see the same thing in a swimming pool at the park, because people are having fun. The fact that people are having fun breaks down some barriers. I think the fact that music is this international, inter-human dynamic, it breaks down walls automatically, because everyone likes to dance and sing and be a part of that vibration. I think at a certain point, we are still trying to have fun first and foremost, but we are also trying to make people realize, that same thing that happens to us in music when we’re all having fun together, it can happen in our lives and dialogue with each other if we allow it to and stay human.
If we could get all the musicians on Earth to instantly stop being tribal, and just seek after wisdom, which is seeking after the truth, not YOUR truth, but the real truth, I think we could fix a lot. If you had all these country guys, rock guys, funk guys, and their job was to understand what is really going on with each other, not just with themselves, and actually talk to their fans about it on a regular basis from a standpoint of “we are just seeking the truth together,” we could actually get to something. Because right now we being fed so much nonsense, and because we’re tribal we’re buying into it.
I told my girlfriend a year ago when we first started dating, I think everybody is exactly the same. They’re trying to do the best they can, but they’re also woefully uninformed. I think if we were just trying to inform ourselves and each other more from the standpoint of pure knowledge and wisdom, then we could actually figure this stuff out.
You’ve been a professional musician for about 30 years now. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the music world at large?
I remember when there was nothing over there! I feel like that old man who comes back to town and remembers when there was nothing there! When you go pre-internet, that’s really the big difference. For a little guy like me, it has been life changing. I’m not really a pop guy, I’m kind of an oddball jazz guy, but I do like funk and dancing. So there has always been an audience out there for me, because I like dance music and the idea of people having fun. But the internet has allowed people to find me, and me to find them, so that I can make a living. I think that is the biggest part of the last 30 years, just watching the internet happen, and all of a sudden, the world has this huge palate of colors to pick from. So I think that there are a lot of ways where people think it killed things, but it brought things to life as well. The internet allowed us all to find each other.
What would you want to be going through someone’s head as they leave their first Karl Denson performance, with whatever group you may be playing with?
That they had a lot of fun, and that somehow, in some way, they feel smarter than when they walked in. That’s the jazz guy in me, you know? When I went and saw the great people that I saw in my youth, or even now, when I see Wayne Shorter with what he’s doing right now, I feel smarter having experienced it.
Speaking of your different groups, what’s your situation looking like?
We are off this week, and then we get back out for the rest of the month promoting the album, and then The Rolling Stones start in April, so we have a smattering of gigs through the summer with the Stones.
If you’ll allow a personal indulgence question before we go here, what’s it like playing sax with the Stones?
It doesn’t get any better than that! That’s really all I can say. It’s the fucking Rolling Stones. What could it be like? People ask what it’s like to play for 70,000 people, but it really boils down to me playing for four people.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is currently performing at New Orleans Jazz Fest, and will be hitting the festival circuit this summer. Click here for dates. He performs at The Asbury Lanes on August 23, click here for tickets.