Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe & The Motet
with special guest DJ Logic
Karl Denson’s Annual Birthday Bash
Featuring Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe & The Motet
With special guest DJ Logic
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Singer and saxophonist Karl Denson fronts his band the Tiny Universe as if he’s preaching the gospel. Merging funk, soul, rock, jazz, blues and more, his energy and spirit are contagious, while his songwriting serves a larger message of fellowship—across generations, genders, religions and cultures. Not surprisingly then, he’s none too pleased with the current state of political discourse. Thus the reason why KDTU’s new album, Gnomes & Badgers, out now on Seven Spheres Records, Denson’s hard-grooving answer to these tragically divisive times.
“As a writer and a human being, I’m affected by what goes on around me,” Denson says. “I’ve always been interested in politics, and what I’m seeing now just disturbs me. I saw this idea of Gnomes & Badgers—which are the different people in the world, the different parties on the left and the right—as a great way to frame the political debate and the debate about listening to each other. Somebody needs to say something, and hopefully I can say it in a way that will make people reconsider how they think about things.”
That theme of compassionate exchange is showcased especially well on choice cuts like “Time to Pray” and “Change My Way,” the latter co-crafted by Denson and his “writing mentor” Anders Osborne. But through the music’s blues essence, an idea of empathy traverses the album in full. “There’s some heartache in there that is hopefully concealed well enough to make people happy while still feeling it,” Denson explains. “To me this is really a blues record. It’s a blues about love; it’s a blues about life. It’s about people’s relationships.”
To aid him in his mission, Denson tapped some of his legendary friends, including The Rolling Stones’ keyboardist and Allman Brothers Band alum Chuck Leavell, guitar-slinging singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, New Orleans guitar hero Anders Osborne, Austin producer and guitarist Adrian Quesada and NOLA R&B royal Ivan Neville. There’s no doubt Denson is also drawing influence and inspiration from his other main gigs, as a touring member of The Rolling Stones and the linchpin of the beloved jazz-funk unit The Greyboy Allstars.
Collectively the process of creating Gnomes & Badgers led to the current itineration of the Tiny Universe. After recording in various studios over a two-year period, Denson couldn’t find the cohesion he was after and ending up scrapping his work, save for three tracks. “So we went back to the drawing board,” he says, “and in the process I kind of dialed my band in.”
The resulting lineup is nothing less than a juggernaut. In the rhythm section, the Tiny Universe features Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and former Greyboy drummer Zak Najor, as well as keyboardists David Veith and Kenneth Crouch, Denson’s pal from his years in Lenny Kravitz’s band. Alongside Denson on the frontline is trumpeter Chris Littlefield, and providing the lineup’s secret weapon of sorts is the twin-guitar attack of D.J. Williams, a tremendous funk player in both tone and technique, and the Arkansas-born slide and lap-steel virtuoso Seth Freeman. With those two contrasting yet brilliantly complementary pickers in tow, Denson feels like he’s cracked the Tiny Universe’s code. “Now I can write funk and have a rock-n-roll edge,” he says. “It’s the perfect blend of elements.”
In designing the signature meld of grit and groove that defines Gnomes & Badgers, Denson had plenty of role models to check out. With his own demos scattered into the mix, he listened to a playlist of essential rock-tinged funk and psychedelic soul throughout his writing sessions. Indeed, it’s hard not to hear Funkadelic in the opening roar of “Can We Trade,” or Rufus featuring Chaka Khan in the late-night soul of “Just Remember,” or Tower of Power in the horn-driven, power-funk of “Time to Pray,” or Betty Davis in the rough-and-tough funk-rock of “Change My Way.”
Elsewhere, Denson’s song-craft summons up Sly and the Family Stone, Labelle, Cymande, James Brown and Stevie Wonder. The project’s lone cover, a killer take on Cyril Neville’s late-’60s single “Gossip,” underscores Denson’s savvy taste in programming. Denson’s previous release New Ammo featured select covers by the Beatie Boys, Cold War Kids and the White Stripes.
In the end these hip, historically savvy tunes are just a delivery system for Denson’s philosophy of understanding. “I was very outspoken early on, but I’ve also really tried to [express my views] in a loving way and tried to be a good listener,” he says. “I’m still trying to connect with my audience and people around me, in terms of trying to keep all of us responsible for what we say and do.”
Throughout history, unity starts on the dancefloor. From ancient tribal cultures to neon night clubs, beats bring bodies together. Once grinding and grooving in unison, the movement generates friction, sparks, and light. That might just be the purest form of energy on the planet. The Motet harness such energy on their ninth full-length, Death or Devotion. In fact, the Denver septet—Dave Watts [drums], Joey Porter [keys], Garrett Sayers [bass], Ryan Jalbert [guitar], Lyle Divinsky [vocals], Drew Sayers [sax], and Parris Fleming [trumpet]—encode a message in their energetic mélange of boisterous badass funk, swaggering soul, and thought-provoking pop.
In the process, they challenge convention and arrive with a dynamic, diverse, and definitive statement.
“The essence is always going to be the groove, but we wanted to expand the idea of what a funk album could be,” says Lyle. “Of course, you want a driving backbeat. However, with the division that’s going on in this country and the world, I think it’s every artist’s responsibility to create a conversation. That conversation doesn’t have to be political either. It can be about love or an introspective journey. I think the commentary should be on what it’s like to be alive today. By drawing on funk, we create a fun, palatable musical vehicle for the message to go down. Our goal is for you to recognize we’re all dancing on the same dance floor—even though our steps may look a little different.”
Death or Devotion earmarks an important point in the band’s own journey. Since emerging in 1998, the boys have cooked up eight full-length albums and entranced countless crowds. 2016’s Totem saw them welcome Lyle behind the mic and Drew on sax. Shortly after, they kicked off what has become an annual tradition by selling out the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater for the first time. “It was my six-month anniversary and first show for a hometown crowd,” recalls Lyle. “I’ve got 10,000 people looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is that?’,” he laughs.
That night would be chronicled on the fan favorite Live at Red Rocks. In the meantime, the group maintained a prolific pace of 100 shows per year in support of Totem. Along the way, The Motet started recording Death or Devotion during intermittent sessions at Scanhope Sound in 2017.
For the first time, Lyle, Drew, and Parris (who joined in 2018) worked on a Motet record together from start-to-finish.
“On Totem, the train was already moving, and I was just a train hopper,” says Lyle.
“Drew, Parris, and I came onboard within the same year. Now, we’re all bringing our pieces to the puzzle. For me, I brought that R&B style. Funk is the common ground, but the music is a result of different inspirations: namely Drew’s hip-hop and reggae knowledge, Ryan’s psychedelic jamming, Dave with the worldbeat, Joey with his encyclopedic understanding of punk, and Garrett being the best bass player to exist. We found a really cool balance between the funkiness and songs that challenge your emotional headspace more than typical pop.”
The first single “That Dream” showcases the myriad of musical flavors from all seven members. Clean palm-muted guitars bristle against a swaggering beat as the horns enliven each verse, while a vocal call-and-response relays a head-spinning tale.
“I took a nap, and I had the craziest dream I’ve ever had,” he recalls. “In the dream, I’m heartbroken from a nonexistent relationship, so I go out to a bar. I get seduced by this beautiful woman who serves me a glass of wine with poison. I wake up handcuffed and she’s stealing from me and torturing me. It was so dark, but I woke up and thought, ‘That would be a crazy subject to write a party song about!’”
Elsewhere, “Highly Compatible” hinges on an unshakable riff and raucous refrain upheld by sizzling sax. “It’s like that beautiful moment of falling in love where you recognize something as supremely real-life magic,” Lyle goes. “Harry Potter couldn’t conjure a better spell. It’s the magnetic nature of the chemistry. We captured that chemical recognition.”
From the infectious hooks of “Contagious” to the instrumental fireworks on “Speed of Light,” The Motet ultimately propose an important question at the heart of Death Or Devotion.
“What are you going to bring to yourself and the world?”, Lyle leaves off. “Are you going to bring death, or are you going to bring devotion? The choice is yours. When you listen to this record, I’d love for you to walk away feeling a little bit more connected, whether it be to yourself, to your friends, or to your community. Being able to drop all of the vision for a minute, be present, smile, and dance reminds us we’re all going through this together.”