Review: Karl Denson Puts in the Work


Focused practice, long-term resolve, and a couple of nice breaks – musical careers have been built on less. Blasting through two-and-a-half hours of tireless, funkified jazz at STG’s Neptune Theater last Thursday, saxophonist/singer Karl Denson proved that his prolific stint as a bandleader isn’t the stuff of chance, but rather hard work and a sharp sense of direction.

Denson grew up in Orange County. Introduced to jazz by his older brother, he spent more than a decade honing his chops in clubs and restaurants around Southern California. Though it’s a rich, fulfilling genre for players, jazz can be a punishing economic reality – Denson admitted it was a “pain in the ass” keeping up his audience.

That realization sparked a creative realignment. More determined than ever to make a profession of his instrument, an older, wiser Denson took the kind of foundational steps that many artists can’t. He shifted the focus of his practicing and listening, embedded himself in the wider California music scene, and met Lenny Kravitz in 1987. At that point, absolutely ready for the spotlight, Denson saw his career falling into place.

Lenny called Karl into the studio. Pleased with his work, he called him back. Recording sessions turned into touring, not only with Kravitz but with Steve Winwood, Slightly Stoopid, and Jack DeJohnette (among others). Then, in 2014, Kravitz called Denson and told him Mick Jagger wanted to talk – “the craziest week-and-a-half ever in my life,” said Denson, who found the whole thing so surreal that he assumed he would “freaking die in a car accident” before somehow making it onstage with the Stones in Australia.

Take the stage he did. Now, nine years later, Denson remains the Stones’ go-to saxophonist. (Imagine the stories!)

As ambitious a composer as he is a player, Denson formed acid/soul-jazz band The Greyboy Allstars in 1993, and funk/jam outfit Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe in 1998. The latter is known to book over a hundred live shows in a single calendar year – “cranking out art,” Karl says, “that’s what I’m trying to do.” KDTU has a Seattle connection thanks to longtime trumpeter Chris Littlefield, profiled in last month’s Earshot Jazz Magazine. Recently retired from KDTU, now instructing at the Seattle Drum School, Littlefield hopped onstage for a few tunes on Thursday.

Alternating between heavy, Parliament-style funk, bluesy singing numbers, and hip-hop breakbeats, the seven-man corps tapped into impressive reserves, maintaining a fiery energy late into the night. Highlights included covers of Roy Hargrove’s “Rich Man’s Welfare” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” the latter of which seems to have lingered in the public imagination since 2014’s Whiplash.

Explaining his predilection for sprucing up midcentury standards, Denson points out, “What’s old is new.” After he made the leap from jazz clubs to the funk/jam bandstand, he kept on playing Horace Silver and Milt Jackson tunes to enthusiastic reception. In other words, though it might be a “pain in the ass” courting jazz crowds, it doesn’t take an aficionado to recognize a timeless melody.

“I just wanted to make really good art,” Denson says of his career. “Which I’m still after.”

Eric Olson
Eric Olson
Eric Olson is a Seattle-based novelist and essayist living in the Central District. He works as an environmental engineer, managing polluted sites west of the Cascades, and also plays guitar in local outfit Caveman Ego. You can learn more about him and his work at


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