Karl Denson gets vocal on his new album, Brother’s Keeper
When it comes to music, funk/jazz saxophonist Karl Denson is a man of few words. Up until now, the output we’ve heard from his band Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (KDTY) has been largely instrumental, with the vocal tunes serving to figuratively tap a spoon against a glass and raise a toast in the middle of the dance party. KDTY’s latest album, the Motown-flavored Brother’s Keeper, however, is dominated not by instrumental acrobatics, but by singing. If Denson has become unexpectedly vocal on his latest offering, perhaps it’s because he has a message to deliver: In an era when the modern conveniences and freedoms that we enjoy also keep us separate from one another, Brother’s Keeper is a call for people to become more involved in the world around them.
“We’re in contact with people all day long, but I think sometimes we have to choose to step outside the little bubble of those normal people that we’re dealing with and go see who else is around who might need some help,” Denson notes. “The things we might run into if we weren’t completely isolated—just walking down the street, there’s homeless people on the street. You’re texting or you’re Twittering, and you actually miss what’s going on.”
Denson walks his talk: This year, he and his band began donating a tenth of their proceeds to Photo Charity (PhotoCharity.com), an organization that raises money for a San Diego homeless shelter called The Storefront, which houses homeless teens from ages 12 to 17. If you think one tenth is a rather generous sum, you’re not alone: “That’s what my manager said!” Denson laughs. “He was all into it until we started pulling the money out of the coffer.”
Denson, who has also served as a member of The Greyboy Allstars, the Karl Denson Trio, Lenny Kravitz’s band and the fictional group Sexual Chocolate from the 1988 Eddie Murphy flick Coming to America, explains that Brother’s Keeper is enriched by string arrangements and backup vocalists, making for a fullness of sound that isn’t easy to reproduce onstage. At first, Denson had planned to use samples of these extra sonic layers when playing live, but he thought better of it when he realized this would necessitate the tedious process of running a click track onstage. Instead, he and the band made a few changes to the music, including having keyboardist David Veith cover some of the string parts on organ, as well as having everyone in the band sing in order to “make up for [the absence of] all those beautiful girls singing with us [on the album].”
Denson’s use of strings and backup vocalists on his latest recording is partly an extension of having spent nearly two decades as Lenny Kravitz’s sax player. “When we were in the studio with Lenny, and we were doing all this crazy production, I’d go, ‘Man, how are we gonna pull this off live?’” he recalls. “He was like, ‘Don’t worry about live. We’re in the studio; we’re making a record. You give the record all the detail you can, and then when you go live, you do what you can.’” This approach is evident in Denson’s sax playing on Brother’s Keeper as well: Whereas he normally writes his horn parts so as to not overlap with his vocals (the better to accurately reproduce the song in a live setting), this time he chose to let the voice and sax run together in the style of classic R&B/Philly soul records.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays back-to-back CD-release shows at Moe’s Alley this Thursday and Friday, Oct. 8-9, giving locals a chance to decide for themselves whether the new material passes the live test. It’s worked out really great,” Denson says, claiming the album has been translating well from album to stage. “People are getting it.”