Karl Denson and Ivan Neville Team Up to Help LA Get Down

Like a Captain Kirk of the musical cosmos, fans can always count on Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to seek bold new adventures in sonic space.
Ivan Neville

Ace saxophonist Karl Denson has been one of the hardest working men in show business throughout the 21st century and 2015 has been no exception. Denson not only continues to lead both the Tiny Universe and the Greyboy Allstars, he also spent a good chunk of his summer touring America with the one and only Rolling Stones after first joining the band for some overseas dates in 2014. This only raised Denson’s considerable mojo even higher, increasing anticipation for the Tiny Universe’s fall tour.

Seeing Denson projected into larger than life status on the Stones’ gigantic jumbotrons during his hometown show at San Diego’s Petco Park in May was a sublime experience for many west coast music fans, as it surely must have been for Denson’s longtime followers across the country on the 15-show Zipcode Tour. Denson has been a stalwart of the improv music scene for almost two decades, but adding the Stones to his resume has him rocketing toward icon status.

Call it funk, fusion, acid jazz or even jamrock, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has earned a reputation for delivering groovy jams to all life-forms and lifestyles across America. The band’s current lineup features a blast from the past with Soulive’s Alan Evans returning on drums and a forward to the future vibe with the addition of Brownout’s Beto Martinez as a second guitarist along with DJ Williams. The band still features longtime mainstays Chris Littlefield on trumpet, Chris Stillwell on bass and David Veith on keys, enabling Denson to maintain a rock steady foundation even as he tinkers with the Tiny Universe’s warp drive engines here and there.

The band kicked off the fall tour in style with LA and San Diego dates featuring the added guest appearance of Ivan Neville, another maestro with his own considerable mojo. Son of Aaron Neville and leader of Dumpstaphunk, Ivan knows his way around the Tiny Universe’s funky space highways and cosmic wormholes. The band has been working up tunes for a new album and featured some of those tunes early on. Denson introduced the hard rocking “When I Get Home” as a tune written by Stillwell and then the ’70s funk sound of “Monk Strap” as written by Williams. The band was cranking up the guitar rock power on the former, while Denson dazzled with some Ron Burgundy style jazz flute on the latter.

There’s few funk bands that can rock like the Tiny Universe and few rock bands that can get down with the funk like Denson and his space traveling crew always do. Adding in another elite player like Ivan Neville on the keys was like having two captains on the deck of the Enterprise. Neville sat in for most of the show, sharing the keys with Veith and propelling the Tiny Universe to an even higher dimension. His impact was felt early and often, starting with a bluesy funky tune where he sang of believing he was on the right track. Neville clearly had his mojo working and the uplifting tune was a spirit raiser, especially with Denson crushing a sax solo to really get things going.

Time and space almost seemed to stop altogether when Neville led the band into a simmering take on Neil Young’s classic, “Down by the River”. Neville sang again, while the Tiny Universe seemed to relish in digging deeper into a cosmic blues outside their normal flight path. The band’s sound really gelled here, captivating the room and giving Denson another platform for some more dazzling sax work. The performance of the timeless tune was downright mesmerizing, with Neville at the top of his game as he helped the Tiny Universe launch into hyperspace.

The only problem was how the normally well-tuned Echoplex had decided to open only one bar, despite the fact that at least a couple hundred fans were in the house. There was also only one bartender at the sole bar, meaning fans had to endure 15-20 minute waits just to get a drink, which seemed like much longer with the Tiny Universe rocking the house. This was certainly not a fan friendly move, leaving a lot of people rather steamed, not to mention a stressed bartender.

The band soldiered on with the new “Smart Boy” though, shifting gears into some uptempo funk, with Neville reprising his role from recording the song with the band in the studio for the upcoming album. The classic “Front Money” rocked the Echoplex with its ever dependable funk, a showcase for the band’s acid jazz sound with Denson and Littlefield locking in on the groovy horn lines. Neville shifted over to electric piano after playing mostly organ to deliver some classic Herbie Hancock fusion vibes, and the jam also featured a big bass solo from Stillwell over a tight snare from Evans. The dance party concluded on the set closing “Boogaloo” with Denson and Neville swapping verses on the rousing jam.

The Tiny Universe once again displayed their patented talent for genre fusion with a re-arranged encore rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Underfoot” that emphasized more of a funk vibe, yet still maintained the song’s sexy urgency. Neville was only scheduled to play the first two shows of the tour, but Denson has shown a tendency in recent years to pull out the guest stars whenever and wherever he can find them to help keep things fresh. Like a Captain Kirk of the musical cosmos, fans can always count on Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe to seek bold new adventures in sonic space.

RATING 8 / 10