Good luck coming up with a category for New Ammo, the first record for Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe in five years. The buffed-up octet tosses together the driving grooves of Phish-like jam bands, the itchy spasticity of Downtowners like the Lounge Lizards and James Chance, and the splash-and-stab horn charts and kick-drum funk of James Brown. Twenty years ago, Denson was playing his originals (and a Dexter Gordon cover) on tenor saxophone in a trio with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland. But most of the “jazz” on this new disc comes forth in the arrangements and genre transitions. Danceability is the paramount concern.
Denson has totally overhauled his Tiny Universe since the last KDTU record, Brother’s Keeper, in 2009. The core horn section has been expanded to four pieces for more oomph and orchestral variation, and the addition of guitarist DJ Williams and the expanded role of keyboardist David Veith amplify the rock influence. The band puts meat and muscle on the bones of some fairly obscure skeletons. “The Duel,” from the 1970 film C.C. and Company starring Joe Namath and Ann-Margret, is a wallop of cheesy surf guitar, fuzz-organ à la Steppenwolf and Denson’s brawny sax. “Hang Me Up to Dry,” by the indie-pop band Cold War Kids, keeps its yearning, bluesy vocal but is otherwise blown up into a Stonesy arena-rock anthem. Other covers include the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” with Denson leading on flute, and a fairly faithful rendition of Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot.”
The originals are often more jazz-inflected. The title track leads and continually returns to a melodic, funky rhythm straight out of the Joe Zawinul songbook, with bassist Chris Stillwell spraying the mix with the gusto of Jaco. And the 10-minute closer, “Odysseus,” wafts forth like gentle acid-jazz, battens down into a Roy Ayers-like R&B groove (courtesy of guest vibraphonist Mike Dillon) and then explodes.