Karl Denson’s diversified universe includes poetry, guitar and the Rolling Stones

The term “diversification” might be most commonly associated with the world of business and finance, but it is a concept that applies to any number of disciplines, including music.

Karl Denson is definitely diversifying.

Tahoe Onstage
Men with hats: Karl Denson has a penchant for stepping up and into new things. Photo by Marc Millman

The newest member of the Rolling Stones (more on this later), Denson is well  known for his time with Lenny Kravitz and his own long-running band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. The career funk and jazz saxophonist has pumped some serious variety into his portfolio in recent years. For one thing, Denson has taken up the study of poetry.

“I am studying poetry, I’m trying to learn how to write lyrics,” Denson said. “I’m getting serious about it. I was watching the Dylan documentary for the third or fourth time, and it dawned on me that he was a big poetry guy.”

No big fan of poetry himself, Denson recognized the potential to advance his songwriting with the study.

“I generally don’t like poetry and I struggle with writing lyrics,” Denson said. “I’ve got a gang of tunes that are ready to go and I just need lyrics for them.”

“I’ve written all the lyrics on my stuff (in the past), but it’s not anything super deep. It’s something that I’ve wanted to be good at, but never put the right kind of energy.”

Denson attributes this lack of effort in part to his near-total focus on the musical side of a song.

“I’m one of those people when I listen to a song, I hear the music first. I don’t hear the words for the first four, maybe, five times,” he said.

Along with poetry, Denson has been stepping up his guitar playing

“I started playing guitar a couple of years ago,” he said.  “Aside from doing shows and producing a couple of records, when I’m not in the studio, not onstage, I’m playing guitar, writing songs and trying to become a poet.”

His recent focus on guitar is driven in part by an appreciation for a genre that is a core focus for many American guitar players.

“I like the blues,” he said. “The Band is my favorite band, my favorite rock ‘n’ roll band. I’m learning a bunch of the Band tunes.”

Originally from San Diego, Denson has been playing funk, jazz and beyond for more than 30 years. Along with the aforementioned bands, he was a co-founder of the Greyboy Allstars, and has played with a wide array of artists ranging from Dave Holland to Slightly Stoopid to Blackalicious.

2014 was as motivating a year as Denson has had in his musical career, well beyond the self-inspired pursuit of poetry and the six-string. Denson experienced significant milestones, both with Tiny Universe and on his own.

“The band kind of hit its stride last year,” Denson said. “We got a new drummer, I feel like he fits really well, kind of bringing him up to speed.”

With Denson, the core of KDTU is Chris Stillwell (bass), Chris Littlefield (trumpet), D.L. Williams (guitar), and Max MacVeety (drums).

On his own, the saxophonist was invited to join a rather well-known band: the Rolling Stones.

“Of course, I landed that Stones gig, so that didn’t hurt,” Denson said.

Karl D portraitAs Stones saxophone player Bobby Keyes became increasingly ill with cirrhosis throughout 2014, his band mates began to search for a replacement. Keys passed away in December 2014.

“Mick (Jagger) and Lenny Kravitz happened to be having dinner,” Denson said. “Mick told Lenny what was going on, and Lenny was like, ‘I’ve got the perfect guy for you.’ ”

“A week later I was on a Skype call with Mick Jagger.”

Denson joined the Rolling Stones for a series of nine shows in Australia in October and November, and will be working with the group in 2015.

Increased stage time with pedal steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier was another of Denson’s highlights in 2014. After a number of shared performances in the recent past, Collier has become something of an unofficial member of KDTU, touring with the band in 2015.

“I’ve been playing with him for a few years,” Denson said. “I finally kind of roped him into the band. “

Karl Denson was part of the horn section for Slightly Stoopid during a show at Tahoe Vista in 2014. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage.
Karl Denson was part of the horn section for Slightly Stoopid during a 2014 show at Tahoe Vista. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

In featuring pedal steel, Denson and Collier are taking funk music in something of a new direction.

“We’re trying to expand beyond the normal funk and jazz setup, bringing in sounds like the Allman Brothers and the Derek Trucks Band,” Denson said.

Of course, Denson is all about variety, and is never one to be confined by genre-based boundaries. His favorite band to play live with right now is jam-grass icon Leftover Salmon, he said.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe will headline a Valentine’s Day show at Crystal Bay Casino on Saturday, February 14. The Crown Room is a stage that Denson knows well from numerous appearances throughout the years.

“It’s a great venue, I think the people of Tahoe know how good Crystal Bay is, definitely a world class venue,” he said.

Denson was quick to voice his respect for one of the reasons behind Crystal Bay’s reputation as a top-notch destination, the late Blake Beeman. The well-known sound engineer passed away in Truckee in 2014.

“I want to pay homage to Blake for putting that thing together the way he did,” Denson said. “Great guy, we had a lot of fun over the years.”

Outside of an ever-busy touring schedule, Denson is primarily focused on KDTU’s next album in 2015. He hopes it will be a testament to his recent dedication to songwriting and guitar playing.

“This whole guitar, lyrics thing, it’s really about the Tiny Universe,” the bandleader said. “This next record, I want to make a big statement as far as where we’re going.”

While he has set no precise timetable for the recording process, Denson expects the album to be out in 2015, probably in the fall.

Remember folks: the man’s focus is on the songwriting.

“We’re trying to get in the studio in March,” Denson said, before pausing.

“I’ve got a lot of lyrics to complete by then.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe featuring Roosevelt Collier
When: 9 pm, Saturday, February 14
Where: Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 the day of the show



ABOUT Tahoe Onstage

Tahoe Onstage
Tahoe Onstage is an online entertainment and sports magazine covering Lake Tahoe, Truckee, Reno, the Carson Valley and June Lake.


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