Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe: New Ammo

[27 March 2014]

By Greg M. Schwartz

Contributing Editor

The cover of the Tiny Universe’s new album features a dog with a saxophone in his mouth. It’s appropriate, since saxman/bandleader Karl Denson has established himself as a top dog in the acid jazz/funk/jam scene. There’s a slew of such bands competing for fans’ attention these days, but Denson has been leading the pack since the late 20th century.

New Ammo is KDTU’s first release on Stoopid Records, a result of Denson’s work touring with his fellow San Diegans in Slightly Stoopid. It’s also symbolic of how the Tiny Universe continues to expand its eclectic sound. The jazzy funk jams will always be the band’s bread and butter, but KDTU appeals to a wider audience by also dabbling in rock, blues, and hip hop.

Some feared the band’s musical evolution might be hindered when longtime guitarist Brian Jordan departed in 2011, as he seemed to be such a perfect fit. But Denson scored again with guitarist D.J. Williams, and the band still features mainstays Chris Stillwell on bass, David Veith on keyboards and Chris Littlefield on trumpet. The group has been gelling again over the past two years and the results are evident here with a mix of fresh new tunes and a handful of sharp covers.

The band’s diversity is featured on an instrumental cover of the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot”, which features some jazzy flute yet still maintains the hip hop flavor of the original. Then there are high-powered takes on the Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Out to Dry” and the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. The band has already road-tested “Seven Nation Army” with great results, blending the song’s anthemic power with the Tiny Universe’s jazzy syncopated flair. Nicki Bluhm also guests for a vocal duet with Denson on the bluesy “My Baby”, and its always great to see such collaborations within the tight-knit jamrock community.

But the meat of the album is the Tiny Universe on its own, throwing down a slew of great new material. The title track is a super funky jam penned by Williams. It features the twin horns of Denson and Littlefield in an extended uptempo workout, as well as a fierce solo from Williams leaving no doubt the guitar spot is well taken care of. “The Duel” is another highlight, a cinematic cut that sounds like it could be the soundtrack from a chase scene in an Austin Powers flick. Denson credits bassist Stillwell for influencing the band here with his vast collection of old school funk soundtrack albums from the early 1970s. Veith contributes “Cheerleader”, a bluesy blastoff where the surging keys power a hot groove.

The whole band shines on stellar jams like “Grenadiers” and “Apres Ski”, with the latter promising to get bodies moving on dance floors everywhere. If there’s ever a sequel to Hot Tub Time Machine, the Tiny Universe should be in it jamming this track for John Cusack and friends to get down to.

The band’s jazzier side is featured toward the end of the album, when the energetic “Malgorium” breaks down into an ambient interlude that gives everyone a chance to stretch out. Then there’s the 10-minute album closer “Odysseus”, which starts off with a simmering groove that the band builds up in expert fashion. The horns crackle over a funky riff from Williams and some great psychedelic work from Veith, as the song builds into a hot jam that takes the listener on a true journey into the heart of the Tiny Universe.

Like most of its peers, KDTU is a band known more for their incendiary live shows than their studio output. But New Ammo does a stellar job of capturing the band’s live energy and demonstrating why the band is always a hot ticket on the road.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/179788-karl-densons-tiny-universe-new-ammo/