By Michael Lester
Muscularly chiseled, musically innovative jazz-funk improv saxophonist Karl Denson chuckled at the suggestion he may rival Gov’t Mule/Allman Brothers Band axman Warren Haynes as the hardest working performer on the jam band scene.
“I think Warren may have me on that. But we’re both riding the same hamster wheel,” the 56-year-old Orange County, Calif., native and father of three teens modestly acknowledged Sunday afternoon, moments after soundcheck at his latest gig on the East Coast.
Denson and his Tiny Universe, scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. set this Saturday at Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain’s Peach Festival, performed last Saturday at moe.’s 14th annual moe.down festival in Turin, N.Y.
(Coincidentally, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe will be bookended on the Peach Stage Saturday by Floodwood, a newgrass side project of moe.’s Al Schnier and Vinnie Amico, and Gov’t Mule.)
The high-energy six-man Universe ensemble, which includes Denson on vocals and a horn section of Denson and trumpet player Chris Littlefield, wrapped up its moe.down set around 4:30 p.m. last Saturday. Denson quickly took off in a rental car for a 75-mile drive to the Syracuse airport for a 6:45 p.m. flight to Philadelphia, where he would play hours later — yep, the same night — with frequent collaborators Slightly Stoopid.
Denson’s plane touched down around 8 p.m. in Philly, he rented another car and arrived at Slightly Stoopid’s tour bus stationed outside the Festival Pier at Penn’s Landing in Philly at 8:38, he said. Denson, who rose in popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s playing on a pair of multi-platinum Lenny Kravitz albums, had a couple minutes — literally — to catch his breath. He took the stage with Slightly Stoopid at 8:40 p.m., beginning the nightcap of his doubleheader.
When the grind of a day was over, he hopped aboard Slightly Stoopid’s tour bus en route to Sunday night’s show at Pier Six Pavilion on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Denson sounded surprised himself that he was able to pull off double duty.
“I think that was a record, as far as distance,” he acknowledged. “I’m not normally the most punctual guy. But I try to get the job done. Life in the fast lane.”
We caught up with Denson Sunday afternoon, moments after Slightly Stoopid’s soundcheck at Pier Six. Asked what Peach Fest goers should expect from KDTU, Denson, also a flautist, paused.
“We’re gonna play some funky jazz,” he said simply.
Denson said the band would likely open its Peach set with a newly written Southern rock-infused number from KDTU’s in-the-works album (the album’s working title is “Cheerleader”), which will likely be released in late October.
Fans who have seen Denson’s live, energetic performances may be surprised to learn — just as we were — he does not actually lift weights. But he maintains an exercise regimen that allows him to remain both buff and physically prepared for tour demands like last weekend’s.
Denson said he, his bandmates and crew adopted the 45-minute cardio workout Insanity — of infomercial fame — as their exercise routine. Denson said he participates about three to five times a week backstage while on the road.
Denson admitted he’s not as dedicated to Insanity as his band’s sound man, who religiously does six sessions a week.
But “You gotta stay in shape. I’m trying to stave off having someone wipe my ass as I get older,” Denson joked.
Asked about his linebacker-like physique, Denson credited heredity.
“I’m built like my dad,” said Denson, who grew up near San Diego and counts former Major League Baseball player Gary Templeton as an acquaintance.
Templeton was a friend of Denson’s older brother Keith.
It was Keith, one of five brothers and sisters, who introduced Karl to the sound of jazz legends like Eddie Harris, a jazz saxophonist, when Karl was 13. That’s when Karl took up the instrument himself.
“He initiated me into the jazz club,” Denson recalled of his brother. “We had great schools. Great music programs in Orange County.”
Denson’s big break came in the late 1980s while working a horn section with a trumpet player friend of his on an album being produced by Lenny Kravitz. Kravitz eventually invited Denson into his recording studio, and Denson contributed his sax to Kravitz’s “Let Love Rule” and “Mama Said” albums, touring with Kravitz at the height of his pop stardom.
In addition to his own band and his role with Slightly Stoopid, Denson cofounded the “acid jazz” Greyboy Allstars with DJ Greyboy in 1993. The Allstars’ sound combines hip-hop, jazz and funk.
Denson’s eclectic resume also includes performances of the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” alongside guitarist Anders Osborne, co-headlining a concert with Public Enemy in 2011 and sitting in with bluegrass band Leftover Salmon.
“I’m a jazz artist who plays a lot of formats,” Denson said.