Karl Denson (due on the main stage at this weekend's Westword Music Showcase) is hard to pin down. The saxophonist and bandleader may have strong roots in the traditional jazz of giants like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, but that hasn't stopped him from exploring funk, R&B, hip-hop and myriad other genres in his two-decade-plus career.
Starting as a member of Lenny Kravitz's original ensemble in the late '80s, Denson went on to push the creative envelope, exploring different textures and styles with the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.
Nearly three years after the release of Brother's Keeper, his last album with the Tiny Universe, Denson has hit the road with Slightly Stoopid with a set that pays tribute to the Beastie Boys. We caught up with Denson to track his varied musical roots, his even more diverse work since the late '80s, and the lessons he learned in putting the Beastie Boys tribute together.
Westword: I want to start by asking about your musical roots. You've had your hand in so many different styles and genres since starting out in the late '80s, but jazz seems to remain a constant.
Karl Denson: I'm, like, number five of six kids, so I had my older brothers and sisters always playing a lot of great music around the house. I think that was one thing that I was really fortunate to have had. My older brother just above me, he started listening to jazz when he was in high school -- and he's four years older than me -- he became kind of a jazz aficionado. That rubbed off on me. Growing up in the '70s with funk and soul and everything, I think there was just a great variety of music that I was exposed to early on.
Was the saxophone your first instrument?
Yeah, pretty much. I played a little cello in fourth grade, but that didn't stick. My first fifteen years of playing saxophone was really about being a jazz guy. I was listening to people like John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter. It was all about playing well -- that was the first thing you had to do. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the idea that these guys were artists. Somebody like Miles Davis or Wayne Shorter, their musical path had to do with them adapting. I always liked the idea of changing and modifying things.
That stress on adapting famously drove Miles Davis to electronic music and fusion styles later in his career. Did you take a similar turn in exploring rock and funk styles?
I think it was kind of natural. I was always playing all different kinds of music. I was never just playing jazz. Back in the '80s, I played in an R&B band that was managed by Don Cornelius of Soul Train. That taught me a lot about going into the studio and horn parts, you know, playing all of them. Jazz was always the thing that I wanted to do, but I always kept my eyes and ears open to what else was going on.
Did that experience guide your creative role when you started playing with Lenny Kravitz in the late 1980s?
Yeah, to a certain extent. In every situation when I've been in Lenny's band, he's kind of confided in me as someone who he thought had an idea of what was going on around us, as far as the selection of the band, the original Lenny Kravitz band. We talked about it a lot, and it was kind of stretched out. That was on purpose. That's kind of why I left. It started to get too restrictive in terms of him playing tunes exactly like the records and not really stretching out anymore. That was a bit of frustration for me. When I listen to jazz or when I listen to Jimi Hendrix or when I listen to Bruce Springsteen, you know, the things that intrigued was that they all stretched out in a certain way. I got a little bored.
Was that a priority when you went on to found Greyboy Allstars and eventually the Tiny Universe bands?
Yeah, I mean I always thought of it as: If you don't play up to a certain level, then you're not going to get better. That was always my fear. In my career, I always I wanted to be able to do enough of everything to be able to grow. When we started the Greyboy Allstars, it was more of a timing thing. We realized that our time had come in terms of the fact that they were sampling jazz records instead of sampling rock records.
I heard that and thought, 'OK, this is cool. They're sampling Grant Green, so why don't we go play Grant Green tunes'? With the Tiny Universe, the Greyboy Allstars were starting to wind down a little bit in terms of playing, so I needed another outlet. I wanted to write more vocal tunes. I wanted to take it in a little different direction, so it was a chance for me to get back to my own singular voice in a way.
What was your background in singing and vocal arrangements when you started the Tiny Universe band?
It was pretty new in terms of me being a lead singer. I had always written vocal tunes, but it wasn't until the Greyboy Allstars that I actually became a lead singer. It was an interesting departure for me, and my whole time with the Allstars, I just wanted to take it a little bit harder. It was really all about rhythm and blues and soul. That was the direction that everything had taken. When we started the Greyboy Allstars, I had started to push the jazz thing to the background. I had realized a while before that for me to have a real modern voice, I kind of had to make my own style. That was where were going with the Allstars and where I continue to go with Tiny Universe, which is putting everything together to create my own thing.
Going over the Tiny Universe discography from The Bridge in 2002 to Brother's Keeper in 2009, it sounds like you've worked harder and harder to move beyond the traditional jazz cues of the saxophone.
I think it's all really different, and that's one of the things that I've always done ... The interesting thing for me now is that over all these years, I think there's probably as many songs or more that haven't been recorded as ones that have. It's been one of those things where I just continue to write songs and try to grow. I think Brothers Keeper has a certain kind of maturity to it that The Bridge doesn't have. The Bridge had the great edge to it, so I think they're all different, and hopefully the next one will be a better blend of everything.
Can you tell me a bit about the inspiration for the Beastie Boys tribute that you'll bring to this year's Westword Music Showcase?
Me and my manager have been talking about doing some special things for the fans. We had talked about this Beastie Boys thing quite a while ago, and actually, I talked it over with the Slightly Stoopid guys last summer when was on tour with them. We've been thinking about it, and we just got around to doing it. It was really interesting -- we had done the San Diego show and it went really well. Then we announced the San Francisco show, and shortly after we announced the San Francisco show, MCA died. It was a little bit bittersweet. It started out just being a party, and turned out being a tribute to the Beastie Boys and MCA's life.
I know that some of the performers dress up in costumes from Beastie Boys videos and concerts. Can you give an idea of what the structure of the concert will be when you guys hit Denver?
It's a musical performance, but the Stoopid guys really brought it. We've got some costume changes. It came out really cool. What we tried to do with the band is just keep it really organic, so it's an organic take on the music. We're not using samples. The guitar player does all the scratching on the guitar. It's an interesting way of doing it. We do a little bit of beat boxing and we created some sounds on the synthesizers, but it's really our music. The Slightly Stoopid guys are really spot-on on the vocals.
How does your saxophone fit in?
You'll see, I'm the sax, of course, on "Brass Monkey," then there's a couple tracks where I do the synth parts. I've got the squishy line on "Intergalactic." It's pretty funny. When the Slightly Stoopid guys came in and heard what we were doing with the beat, they were totally laughing at certain parts, with the instrumentation that we decided to do. It's an interesting take on it, pretty cool.
Have you been a Beastie Boys fan from the early days?
I was, actually. Not a rabid fan or anything, but I was definitely a fan. I owned some Beasties Boys records in my younger days. At that time, they came right out of Run DMC, so it was just kind of the whole scene, the early rap scene, was really interesting. These white kids from Brooklyn managed to come in and dominate the scene was very cool ... Then you realized with Paul's Boutique out, what geniuses they were. I'll tell you, learning these things, picking everything apart - it really gives you another appreciation of them.
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