Karl Denson's surreal universe

Local saxman rolls with the Stones

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe just got a whole lot bigger!
  • Karl Denson's Tiny Universe just got a whole lot bigger!
Past Event

The Rolling Stones and Gary Clark, Jr

  • Sunday, May 24, 2015, 7:30 p.m.
  • Petco Park, 100 Park Boulevard, San Diego

Rolling Stones fans will see a familiar face onstage when the band kicks off its 2015 tour at Petco Park in May — local saxophonist Karl Denson. A veteran by now of quick tour hops, which last year took him through Australia and New Zealand with the Stones, the hometown funk-jazz saxist says he’s been named as the replacement for the late Bobby Keyes. Keyes, who toured with the Stones as their primary saxophonist for some 45 years, passed away last year.

“It was a gift,” Denson tells the Reader, “from Lenny Kravitz,” meaning the connection to Mick and Keef. “He called them and suggested me when he heard the news about Bobby.”

Denson says Lenny Kravitz was his ticket to not only the Stones, but to the national stage as well. “In the ’80s, I had a friend who got signed by Don Cornelius, the creator of Soul Train, right?” And that friend, Denson explains, knew someone who knew Kravitz. “Lenny and I first met in ’87. And then in 1988, we went out to New York to record Let Love Rule. Those first two records [Let Love Rule and Mama Said] were masterpieces. It was an honor to be part of that.”

Denson, 59, born in Santa Ana but a San Diegan for the past 20 years, has since worked with local rap-rock act Slightly Stoopid, and has recorded or gigged in a surprising cross-section of genres with a variety of artists including Stanton Moore, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and Blackalicious. In San Diego, he cofounded a funk-jazz outfit called the Greyboy Allstars, and he leads his own band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, this in addition to releasing several solo albums and several side projects. One of them was a Hammond B3 organ trio; they released Lunar Orbit in 2007, a record of old-school jazz that bore Denson’s imprint but that likewise displayed how eclectic a horn player he can be.

“That was a fun period for me. We were doing smaller rooms then,” he says, one of them being located in Ocean Beach. “My ‘Wednesdays at Winston’s’ series was one of my favorite times. I love that room. It’s the perfect size for seeing something cool.” When asked for the one secret that got him from playing $50 gigs in Orange County years ago to San Diego to arena stages, he answers with one word: “Write.” As in, compose music. “Make your own thing. Even when you’re doing other stuff, write music like it’s your job.” But he also put himself in deeper water as a player. “That’s just part of the journey. You have to get out there and make opportunities, and do it every day. If you have your own thing you’ll always be interacting with other people, trying to put a band together.”

As for the writing, Denson says he does that with his voice. “I just sing. I’ve got hundreds of hours on tape of me humming. It’s immediate as a process – I wrote “Family Tree” in five minutes while I was taking groceries in for my wife. The next record,” he says, “that’s gonna be more dense lyrically. I’m really working hard on my poetry right now. I started playing guitar a year ago, and that’s helped with my writing.”

Past Event

Denson's Tiny Universe: Run DMC Remixed

  • Thursday, April 2, 2015, 8 p.m.
  • Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach
  • 21+
Past Event

Denson's Tiny Universe: Run DMC Remixed

  • Friday, April 3, 2015, 8 p.m.
  • Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Avenue, Solana Beach
  • 21+

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has dates lined up at the Belly Up April 2 and 3 with Vokab Company in a show based on the music of Run DMC. “Their stuff was just really well-crafted pop music. Run DMC was one of the first bands to start using those rock-and-roll samples. They came on so hard, with their punk-rock attitude.” Indeed, Run DMC, a hip-hop act from Queens, is thought to have jump-started Aerosmith’s then-tattered career. “It happens in every generation,” says Denson. “There are kids, for example, that didn’t know that ‘Blurred Lines’ was a Marvin Gaye song.” (Readers may recall the recent decision by an L.A. jury that resulted in Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams being ordered to pay $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye’s estate after it was determined the two had borrowed heavily from Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” in the crafting of their hit song “Blurred Lines.”)

Meanwhile, the Rolling Stones: “‘Brown Sugar.’ That’s a blast. I love playing it. I’ve got that solo in it. And we’re doing a version of ‘Can’t You Hear Me knocking?’ I’ve been a big Bobby Keyes fan for most of my life. So mentally, I was prepared. I’m like a kid in a candy story — the Stones have got such a beautiful catalog. But being there, hanging out with those guys? That’s just surreal.”

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