Karl Denson
Photo: Courtesy of KDTU

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe Pushes the Good Vibe

Funky jazz saxophonist Karl Denson celebrated another birthday at San Francisco’s Fillmore, using the occasion to deliver a funky fiesta for the new year.

It’s a cold, rainy Friday night in San Francisco here on 29th December, but there are festive vibes in the air at the historic Fillmore Auditorium because Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is back to celebrate another circle around the sun for the intrepid bandleader. Denson’s Earth birthday is actually on December 27, which we know since celebrating the occasion here at the Fillmore has become something of a new tradition in recent years. Birthday parties are often scheduled on the weekend, though, hence the Friday fiesta.

PopMatters covered Karl Denson’s milestone 60th birthday bash at the Fillmore in 2016, easily one of the most epic shows of the accomplished saxman’s career. He’s been playing the Fillmore at least since 1999, but it was still hard to fathom that Denson had reached his sixth decade here on the third stone from the sun. His ever-youthful appearance (save for a graying goatee) and fit superhero physique make him look like he’s still primed to join the Guardians of the Galaxy. 

There’s more cognitive dissonance in the air with the realization that Denson is now technically a senior citizen at age 67, but you wouldn’t know it from his ever-active touring schedule. Chalk it up to the invigorating power of live music, with Denson being a pioneer of the acid jazz movement that took the music scene by storm in the 1990s and has remained a funky force to be reckoned with in the 21st century.

“Did you make it a good year? We’re gonna make next year even better,” Denson proclaims after the band gets the show going.  He suggests there’s going to be some new material on tap, but first, he wants to play an old favorite in tribute to his “spirit animal”, Fela Kuti, noting that he’s long been fond of “people who were woke early.” This intro leads to a hot jam on trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s “Rich Man’s Welfare”, a Fela Kuti-inspired afrobeat style tune that feels like a great fit for the Tiny Universe with the tight horn parts and an extended jam featuring special guest Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar. 

It’s great to see Denson and Randolph together again, with some fondly recalling the dynamic duo as band members for a Phil Lesh & Friends gig at the now-defunct Terrapin Crossroads across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Rafael in 2018. Here Denson notes that he dreamt a song for Randolph and arranged it with a “Disco Inferno” vibe, but that Randolph then suggested he needed to change the bass line or he was going to get sued. New female vocalist Dani Parker – aka Dani Danger – then joins the party and delivers some soulful singing on a tune where she sings, “Get ready for the stars to align, supernatural sign”. The song has something of a mystical vibe, as Randolph adds some shimmery slide guitar to augment Parker’s vocals.

Randolph takes a star turn on both guitar and vocals when he sings his song “Baptize Me” from his 2019 album Brighter Days, a bluesy jam with a cathartic vibe and some more stellar pedal steel guitar. Denson takes a moment to talk about how people used to think he was from San Francisco because he used to play a lot of shows at the Elbow Room in the 1990s, where the band drove such good business at the bar that they could lose money playing less well-attended shows in Sacramento and other distant points where they weren’t as well known. “So the San Francisco shows funded the whole movement”, Denson notes in appreciation.

The lengthy set continues to keep the dance floor moving, with Randolph again leading the ensemble on a groovy jam that seems to nod to Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can”. Denson shines on his electrifying version of Cyril Neville’s “Gossip”, a 1969 funk classic that KDTU recorded on 2019’s Gnomes and Badgers album. Guitarist Ricky Giordano stars here as well, rocking hot riffage to propel the groove higher when Denson sings that he’s “gonna ask the guitar man to play it real funky”. 

The band delivers another highlight with a tune that Denson describes as “a new old thing” where he sings of a rising tide and “no excess baggage, only take what you can carry”. He adds some stellar jazz flute here, generating a sublime vibe. He earlier referred to the ensemble as a new band, but there’s definitely some strong chemistry developing under his heady leadership. Randolph continues to dazzle as he leads another bluesy jam with a killer groove, also setting up Denson on sax and Ricio Fruge on trumpet. It’s around the two-hour mark when Denson says they’re going to finish up the set with a song about peace and love. 

“We can get it fixed, guys; stay optimistic… Believe that real democracy takes a long time,” Denson explains, alluding to both urban problems with homelessness as well as national problems with right-wing neo-fascists who are out to thwart democracy.  Funk, soul, and jazz have always been about power to the people, and so it is with Denson’s classic tune “Brother’s Keeper” from his 2009 album of the same title. It’s an upbeat tune with Denson singing about how everybody needs a little help, and we all need to look out for each other. He also throws down some more of his nimble jazz flute, which sounds so good here at the Fillmore as the band takes the jam deep over the hot groove.

It’s always inspiring when long-time musical heroes promote positivity and optimism during tumultuous times, and so it is again here with Karl Denson pushing the good vibe at the Fillmore for a quarter of a century now.  In the end, it’s been another fabulous Fillmore birthday fiesta for Denson, as well as an uplifting show for moving into the new year with a positive vibration.