Universal appeal 

Funk 101 with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe

Just to let you know what kind of turf Karl Denson has scratched out for himself between the jazz and the funk: On the one hand, he collaborated with Miles Davis alumni Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland on Chunky Pecan Pie, one of four acoustic jazz albums (all named after food; the other three were Blackened Red Snapper, Herbal Turkey Breast and Baby Food) recorded after his hitch in the Lenny Kravitz Band on the Let Love Rule and Mama Said albums.

On the other hand, the funk side of things, Denson also toured and recorded four more albums with former James Brown player Fred Wesley between 1993 and 1995. And, of course, he’s also very well known for playing in the Greyboy Allstars, the nearly legendary San Diego jazz/jam/dance music machine he formed in 1993.

Like a wound-up Average White Band with jazz schooling and real soul, the Allstars drove the kids wild on the festival circuit for a few years before disbanding for undisclosed reasons in 1998. When the fog cleared after the breakup, several former Allstars players had congealed into two super-groovy and not too terribly different new bands: Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, with keyboardist Walter as bandleader, and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

Tiny Universe—which includes Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Alan Evans—isn’t even the only band he has time for these days. He frequently sits it with String Cheese Incident and recently recorded a collection of new tracks for a Blue Note date that (re)joined him with a talented bunch of friends and musicians, including old hands Melvin Sparks on guitar, bassist Chris Wood, organist Leon Spencer, drummer Zak Najor, percussionist EJ Rodriguez and DJ Logic swiveling the hell out of the Technics 1200 turntable.

Live or on album, Denson inevitably whips up quite a lather. Less relentlessly groovy than either the 20th Congress or Tiny Universe, the group assembled for Dance Lesson still swaggers through the album’s nine tracks with nary a listless moment. The best tracks on the album call to mind the bad-ass sweetback of early ‘70s funk with popping congas, timbal taps and meandering flute melodies. It’s especially so when Denison picks up the flute—as on, name notwithstanding, “Flute Down,”—that the bandleader’s style distinguishes itself as something steeped in early ‘70s fusion and the funk traditions of Curtis Mayfield but open to new urban sounds. A good blend of decades—Logic’s turntables give the music an undeniable contemporary edge; on the numbers with a little more space to breathe, Wood’s upright bass recalls Charlie Haden at his coolest.

But then again, would you expect anything less than greatness from a group with a pedigree like this? Bassist Wood is the Wood in Medeski, Martin and Wood; EJ Rodriguez has performed and recorded with an amazing bunch of musicians, including Marc Ribot, John Lurie and John Zorn. It just seems like there isn’t a player out there in the jazz/funk universe that Denson couldn’t strike something up with.

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