Karl Denson is a world-class jazz-funk saxophonist and his Tiny Universe, recently revived after five years of dormancy, has a richly deserved reputation for delivering the goods live. Studio efforts that yield the same energy and sophistication haven’t always been elusive, either. 2001’sDance Lesson No. 2 and 2002’s The Bridge both bottled some of the Tiny Universe’s lightning right at what retrospectively feels like band’s creative peak.
Why does the new Brother’s Keeper feel so static? Maybe it’s a confused mission. At least half the songs here feel ready to break out, any minute, into the type of blazing breakdowns Denson and his cohorts used to deliver like it was no big deal, lyrics and production be damned. But then so much of it feels reined in, too. Hold back, fellas, and we’ll make these songs friendly and accessible and do everything we can to not be called “indulgent.”
It’s a shame there’s so little to grab onto, especially with so much guest talent (Me’Shell Ndegeocello turns up, as do former Black Crowes axeman Marc Ford and Switchfoot singer Jon Foreman. The latter co-wrote “Shake It Out” and “Mighty Rebel”) There’s too much going on here—too much subtraction by addition, maybe—and not enough getting down to dirty, funky business. The essential Karl Denson release of the latter half of the decade was 2007’s Lunar Orbit: the raw, coursing Karl Denson Trio album that was thoroughly no-bullshit, which unfortunately can’t be said of this one.