Co-founder and leader of the Greyboy Allstars, saxophonist Karl Denson just spent most of the last year on the Zip Code tour with the Rolling Stones. With a resume that includes backing Lenny Kravitz and recording with acts like Slightly Stoopid and Blackalicious, Denson’s popularity might be biggest with his side project Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, an especially loved dance band steeped in jazz, ’60s supersoul and ’70s funk. Here, he talks about playing with Jagger, covering the Beastie Boys and the heartbreak of being a Kansas City Chiefs fan.
Yellow Scene: By the time this runs, you’ll have your first tour with the Rolling Stones under your belt. What surprised you the most about the experience?
Karl Denson: I don’t think anything surprised me, maybe how approachable the guys are. You kind of know what you’re getting into, but it’s still amazing, so not surprised, but more amazed.
YS: Do you have more in the works with them?
KD: When they go out I’ll be on it, I’m in the band, so just waiting for them to want to leave their gigantic houses.
YS: How has playing with them informed what you do with the Tiny Universe?
KD: Well, I mean it’s always an inspiration playing with great musicians, it’s definitely something that I’m trying to translate to my band. I think one of the best things about them is how much space they leave, so I’ve been really preaching that to my band. I was preaching it before, but now I’m preaching it a lot more because it’s so apparent when you watch them play. Even though they are totally excited on stage, they don’t over play.
YS: You’ve had a long relationship with Colorado. What keeps bringing you back here? What makes it different here to you, as a performer, than other places?
KD: Colorado is jam-band L.A. (It’s) always just been very open to being experimental. I just think it’s the extreme-sport nature of Colorado, people are always looking for something that pushes the envelope, and that is really what jazz and the jam band scene is based on, being open to the experimentation.
YS: New Ammo is influenced by ’70s film scores. Between that and your previous tributes to Ray Charles and the Beastie Boys, it feels like you have found this interesting niche kind of re-mining familiar tunes for new gems. What led you here?
KD: Well, my style has always kind of been informed by the late ’60s and early ’70s, so this is really a continuation of that. The style, in terms of what we do, has to do with the sound of that time, and people are still playing one tune or the other, it’s still about that rhythm and that beat, though all eras can relate to that.
YS: To be honest, I had really low expectations for “Seven Nation Army” (White Stripes, Elephant, XL Label, 2003) on this album — it’s been done so many times — but your arrangement was really cool. Can you talk about how something like this comes together? Is it a really conscious effort to depart from standard approaches, or simply the result of some extended jam session? Or something else entirely?
KD: It was definitely a concerted effort to not play the same thing. I’ve been in love with that song since the record came out and so by the time we started to play it, we’d played it a few times for a few months, then we decided to record it and we noticed that everyone was doing it, it was all over the place. I like the fact that people do recognize it. It starts up, they hear the flute come in and they perk up and they aren’t sure what it is until the bridge before the chords and then they know it and it’s a surprise.
YS: How does the composition process for KDTU differ from Greyboy Allstars?
KD: I mean, not that much, it’s very similar. We bring in tunes, I bring in tunes, I show them to the band, hopefully a little less… Greyboy Allstars is kind of a freak of nature, so writing tunes for me tends to be a lot easier because of the input, but it also tends to be a lot more pointed in terms of what you can get away with. So I think the way I write for the Tiny Universe is a lot looser; we’ll mine ideas for a lot longer than in the Greyboy Allstars. The genius of that band is sheer love.
YS: What’s next for KTDU after this tour?
KD: We just play, we’re doing kind of weekend warrior stuff through the year, and we’re about 70 percent done with our new record, that will come out the beginning of next year. It’s gonna be fun.
YS: Final question: Do you honestly think the Chiefs have a chance to get past the Broncos this season?
KD: [laughs] Oh that’s cold. Yeah I do, but I think if we prove that we have a quarterback, we have all the components. ??For the last four or five years we’ve had all the components except the quarterback, now if he can do what he needs to do, I think we’ll be in really great shape, otherwise we’ll do what we did last year. I mean, you’ve got Peyton, so…
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays the Boulder Theater on Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25+. www.bouldertheater.com