Critics and codgers continue to debate the merits of revisionist jazz historicism, a near-endless cycle that only exacerbates the valuation of classic reissues over original efforts (with due blame falling on Ken Burns’ shoulders for this current round of dead-horse beating). Meanwhile, another urban and urbane jazz renaissance is quietly gathering momentum. The trippy funk-injected stylings of groups such as Medeski, Martin and Wood and the Greyboy Allstars proves that jazz can still dance without abandoning creative intellect.
Meanwhile, in saxophonist Karl Denson’s musical world, life couldn’t be much better. And with his Tiny Universe, the music couldn’t be much funkier. Already considered a well-traveled veteran on the scene, Denson firmly established his presence while performing along side such artists as Lenny Kravitz, former James Brown trombonist Frank Wesley, and contemporary jazz legends Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. His current project, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is a powerful conglomeration of all these influences and so many more. Comfortably able to switch between old school funk, acid jazz, and fusion, KDTU has attracted a diverse and loyal following, with a certain segment of each audience leaning heavily towards the jam band/progressive rock set. The music is infectious, the grooves are relentless and Denson’s impressive sax chops set the pace.
The Bridge represents the first full-fledged studio project for KDTU and lives up to the billing that the band has received over the course of the past few years on the road, including their raucous performance at this past year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana. Opening with the horn-laden funk of “How Fine Is That”, Denson and company quickly establish the disc’s groove-oriented intent with a driving sense of energy. Similarly, cuts like “The Answer”, “Bunny Playa”, and “Satisfied” explore funk’s many flavors, from Sly and the Family Stone to Tower of Power.
Denson’s early reputation as a solid sideman also affords him the opportunity to call in some high-powered backing for his own work. Jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s blistering contributions to the disc’s pull-no-punches closer “Elephants” alone is worth the price of admission. Likewise, hip-hop poet Saul Williams’ lyrical work on “Freedom” imbues the track with a hip sense of cultural currency while recalling a dynamic sense of 1970s political consciousness. Meanwhile, Denson’s regular five-piece backing ensemble — consisting of guitarist Brian Jordan, bassist Ron Johnson, keyboardist David Veith, percussionist Mike Dillon, and drummer Zak Najor — is a formidable force, laying down a solid foundation for Denson’s rhythmic aspirations.
The biggest departure here for Denson compared to his past, more jazz-slanted offerings is his vocal work. While not gifted with an incredibly remarkable voice, Denson does sell the style. It would seem that his years touring with Lenny Kravitz were well spent studying the singer’s impassioned delivery, surfacing with Denson’s rendering of the Curtis Mayfield classic “Check Out Your Mind”.
As anyone who has seen Karl Denson live in concert can attest to, these tracks remain as mere skeletons for longer-form instrumental forays. Though these arrangements have the time to breathe, placing Denson in a unique position compared to the studio work of his fellow jam rock contemporaries, they cry for the sort of thorough treatment that can only be found in a live performance. While this would amount to an extreme challenge for most bands, it’s a welcome exercise for Denson and company, proving that this Tiny Universe contains a galaxy’s worth of talent.