Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is like a funk supernova. Instead of being a catastrophic, albeit incredible end to a star, his brand of soulful rhythm and instrumentals build into a mass of energy that explodes from one song to the next. Rather than a temporary celestial fireworks display that outshines everything else for a moment, Denson’s work consistently illuminates—especially on his latest album, “Gnomes & Badgers,” set for release in March.
Denson and his Tiny Universe players kicked off the new year with live rehearsals of songs from “Gnomes & Badgers.” They will play a few tracks off of the album during their upcoming show at Brooklyn Arts Center on January 23.
“When you get to the point where you get to perform a new record [for a live audience], that’s an awesome place,” Denson tells encore. “It’s almost like finally getting the whole thing out, and then creative juices start flowing again, and you can kind of move on.”
This album welcomes Greyboy Allstars drummer Zak Najor back to Denson’s Tiny Universe. They also picked up slide and lap-steel guitarist Seth Freeman two years ago to join D.J. Williams’ twin-guitar, bassist Chris Stillwell, keyboardists David Veith and Kenneth Crouch—who Denson knows from his years with Lenny Kravitz’s band—and trumpeter Chris Littlefield.
“Gnomes & Badgers” is a musically dynamic and lyrically diverse collection. Listeners are thrusted onto the dance floor from the onset, but there also are layers of tension and build-up reflective of what Denson has seen and felt as of late … particularly in politics.
“Over the last six or seven years, I have watched perfectly smart, rational people in my life become really stupid,” he states with a half-hearted chuckle. “I like politics. I’m a patriot and I love reading American history. And [how America] is amazing in the history of the world. . . . But just the lack of critical thinking that’s going on right now has made me a bit crazy. That’s kind of where the ‘Gnomes & Badgers’ idea came from; trying to get people talking to each other.”
Denson likes to write songs that continue to reveal themselves with time. In fact, a longtime friend and fan of his work finally realized the weight of “Empty Soul” off of 2009’s “Brother’s Keeper. “‘Empty Soul’ is a fun song but it’s about narcissism,” he tells. “You don’t have to hit people over the head with the blues because they understand it intuitively.”
“I still want people to dance,” he reveals of songwriting and music composing. “It’s like when you go see somebody like Howlin’ Wolf: You’re hearing the saddest stories, but you’re still happy because you’re commiserating. . . . We’re human, this is what we do, and we do it with as much joy and optimism as we can.”
Denson worked with some top-notch artists on the record, too; Lukas Nelson, Anders Osborne and Ivan Neville, to name a few. While the songwriting mostly came from Denson’s own musings, he credits his mentors for fleshing out many new tracks. Denson co-wrote “Change My Way” with Osborne, who was instrumental in its development. It’s one of many that overlap upbeat instrumentals with heartache and pain in its lyrics.
“The first song [‘What If You Knew’] is actually one of the saddest,” he expresses. “But it sounds happy. I was talking about how much everybody wants to be loved, and we get into relationships and every once in a while you get your heart broken, but we keep coming back for more.”
But Denson plays it real funky.
Since Denson started as a sax player, singing and songwriting still comes with a learning curve. “I always feel like I’m in some uncharted territory,” he says. “With this record, it was the same thing, and I had a really great team. [They] got dialed in, so it made everything go a lot smoother.”
“What If You Knew,” “Time to Pray” and “Change My Way” will likely make the setlist at BAC. Denson and company eventually will tackle harder tracks, bigger in sound and scope, like “Falling Down.”
“There’s a lot of meat [in ‘Falling Down’],” Denson explains. “There’s a lot to unpack and a lot to figure out with how much we try to be literal with and how much we let people (and ourselves) imagine. It’s kind of a dense song, but it’s kind of my favorite on the record.”
The song got its start in a dream Denson had, featuring a sax player he’s long admired: Rahsaan Roland Kirk—a multi-instrumentalist who was blind and played three saxophones simultaneously during his tenure. “[Kirk] was a complete giant in the jazz world,” Denson gushes. “In my dream, it was him saying, ‘Wait a minute,’ in ‘Falling Down.’”
Denson calls it a “dream song,” for which he keeps a journal by his bed to take notes when the muse comes. We all have the ability to dream; there’s a vast well of ideas and thoughts swimming around our heads at night. We just have to wake it up sometimes, no pun intended. . . . Our subconscious is going 9,000-miles-per-hour. It’s just a matter of being aware of it.”