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Karl Denson's Tiny Universe

U-T San Diego Interview

U-T San Diego Interview

Unlike Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel, Karl Denson has never contemplated opening a haberdashery. But this versatile San Diego saxophonist, flutist and singer so comfortably wears so many different musical caps that he could open a hat store without blinking.

Jazz, funk, rock, soul, hip-hop, electronica, reggae — whatever the style, Denson is able to perform it with ease. He is the longtime leader of his own group, Tiny Universe, and a member of two nationally acclaimed San Diego ensembles, the acid-jazz-championing Greyboy Allstars and the jam band Slightly Stoopid.

His many past collaborators range from The Allman Brothers Band, Lenny Kravitz, Switchfoot leader Jon Foreman and DJ Logic to Steve Winwood and ex-James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley. They also include such diverse jazz luminaries as San Diego trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos and three former Miles Davis band members — guitarist John Scofield, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“I’ve managed to carve out a bunch of different places for myself, as far as my interests and my work,” said Denson, who performs here Friday at the Belly Up with Tiny Universe to promote “New Ammo,” their latest album. (Ticket information appears at the conclusion of this article.)

“But I put it all under the umbrella of dance (music). I’ve been fortunate enough that, when people come to my shows, they get a similar experience, no matter what style I’m playing. Because at the heart of it is dance. If I’m playing swing, I really want it to swing. I’m not so into the esoteric idea of jazz. I’m into where it came from. So when I blend in hip-hop or funk, the idea is to be accessible to the dance floor.”

Even so, this Santa Ana native and Scripps Ranch resident doesn’t hesitate when asked how he identifies himself as an artist.

“I think of myself as a jazz musician, because I think it’s the American music, it’s black music, and I just like the history of it, the vitality of it,” Denson said, speaking from a recent Tiny Universe tour stop in snowbound Iowa.

“There’s a vitality to jazz I’m totally captivated by. If you take the whole way jazz started, in Congo Square (in New Orleans) and how it moved into the brothels and speak-easies; that’s where it kind of had its formation. It’s totally this mixture of African and European music. And, now, we’re 120 years into it.”

Exploring Coltranes’s ‘Interstellar Space’ at 13

Denson was only 13 when his older brother introduced him to the music of jazz sax giants John Coltrane, Miles Davis and others. It was the start of an instant aural love affair, albeit one this budding young saxophonist didn’t share with his friends.

“My peers were listening to Sly Stone, James Brown and Marvin Gaye, and I listened to them, too,” Denson, 57, recalled. “But in my private time, I listened to Coltrane’s ‘Interstellar Space’ album and Anthony Braxton, everything from avant-garde to the really cool soul-jazz at the time by Eddie Harris and Yusef Lateef.”