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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe + Zach Deputy

(25 Oct 2013: The Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, CA)

Denson and Deputy light it up with "Ray Charles Electric Boogaloo Dance Party"

It’s a Friday night in the northern San Diego area, where jazz flute has been greatly appreciated ever since anchorman Ron Burgundy put the city on the jazz map with his sensational skills. But of course the region’s real master of the wind instruments is Karl Denson. This extraordinary saxman is known to play some flute with his acid jazz outfit, the Tiny Universe. If he hasn’t been signed on to make a guest appearance in Anchorman 2, then the producers haven’t done their homework on the city that Burgundy dubbed “the whale’s vagina”.


Those who follow the California music scene will generally rank San Diego a distant third behind the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles metro region. But there’s an exception to that rule with the frequent San Diego appearances of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, as well as his Greyboy Allstars. Denson is from San Diego, so he plays here frequently and the locals can never get enough of the funky dance parties that ensue. Hence a two-night run here at the Belly-Up on the band’s fall tour.


KDTU’s tried and true formula blends funk and jazz elements with rock, soul and rhythm & blues for a fresh sound. The band generally powers through a mix of those elements, but Denson has also been mixing it up in recent years by focusing tours on certain classic artists to highlight particular influences. The fall of 2011 saw the band touring behind a sizzling rendition of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. This was followed in 2012 by Denson and company doing a series of Beastie Boys tribute shows that were undoubtedly the best live renditions of the material anyone will see in the post-MCA era. Rest in peace Adam Yauch.


Now 2013’s “Soul Spectacular Tour”  finds Denson teaming up with Zach Deputy and the Cosmic Horns for a “Ray Charles Electric Boogaloo Dance Party”. Deputy opens the show with a one-man band performance ala Keller Williams, playing guitar and looping samples to jam on top of it. His feel good vibe is contagious and it seems the word on Deputy is already out because the venue neared capacity with dancing revelers for the opening set.


KDTU comes out smoking after the setbreak with guitarist DJ Williams. Tearing it up on “New Ammo”, over a hot groove from bassist Chris Stillwell, drummer Max MacVeety and keyboardist David Veith. Denson and trumpeter Chris Littlefield are a dynamic duo on the horns and the band’s cosmic funk formula shines from the start. Denson and company have provided a valuable 21st century service in delivering their ever dependable groovy dance jams, year after year after year without fail.


But the band also has a knack for finding ways to keep it fresh. Denson announced how he decided to learn guitar at last year’s Rombello Festival and introduces “My Baby” as a song featuring his first riff. It’s got a bluesy locomotive slide riff from Williams that Denson sings over and it’s a winner with horns providing the accents. This is another aspect of what makes KDTU such a dynamic outfit. They’re known for the jazzy funk, but they also excel at bluesier sonic explorations. “The Dual” is another such tune, with a hard-driving groove that conjures visions of secret agents or comic book super heroes adventuring into the night.


The jazz flute comes out on “Ashley’s Roachclip”, a mid-tempo tune with yet another infectious groove where Denson’s sweet flute lines elevate the mood higher still. The brand new “Belleville” is a funky hit, a tune just written the previous month in the town of Belleville, Pennsylvania according to Denson.  The vibe receives another boost when the band foregoes a setbreak, Denson “deputizes” the crowd and then brings out Zach Deputy to launch into the Ray Charles boogaloo section of the show with “Mess Around”. The up-tempo jazzy blues rocker kicks the party into high gear with smiles all around. “I Don’t Need No Doctor” charges the atmosphere further, with Deputy’s soulful vocals and the Tiny Universe horns gelling for a tight blast of funky blues that has everyone getting down. There’s also a second sax player in the form of Daniel Delacruz, adding yet another layer to the cosmic horn sound.


Denson tells the crowd that he connected with Deputy at a festival in Florida and of how they’d been looking to collaborate ever since. The pair make a great team, with clearly mutual influences and both being charismatic front men. Some in the audience might not be so familiar with Ray Charles’ repertoire per se, but the tunes all have that classic familiarity. “Ring of Fire” is not the Johnny Cash classic, but rather Charles’ own simmering blues number on a similar theme. “Unchain My Heart” and “Hit the Road Jack” keep the boogaloo going with more of the classic soul that helped provide the foundation for the soaring acid jazz jams that Denson and his contemporaries would popularize in later decades. Hearing Denson blow the sax on these tunes provides a revealing look at the connection.


“Mary Ann” is transformed into a Tiny Universe style romp with a high energy sound and extended jam, while “What I Said” straddles the line between old school and new. The band shows a great talent throughout the set for honoring the original tunes while pumping them up with a twist of modern flair. A super funked up arrangement of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” shakes things up for the encore, with the band transforming the hit song into another of their own funkadelic jams. It’s embellished further with some more jazz flute to close out another triumphant evening with the Tiny Universe.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.


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