Karl Denson is a busy man.
In the last few months alone, he has appeared with the Rolling Stones, Slightly Stoopid, Greyboy Allstars, Phil Lesh and Friends, Angelo Moore and, of course, his very own Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Heading into the New Year, the saxophone virtuoso is taking a short break from touring to put the finishing touches on the band’s next album, as well as sitting down to write a brand new batch of tunes that has been gathering in his head.
He’s also writing a science fiction novel about inter-dimensional travel, so there’s that.
“It’s something I’ve been rolling around my head for the last 10 years. I like science, and I like science fiction. I’ve just been thinking about this idea for a while. I finally got a writing partner, so we’re rounding the final bend on this thing,” the sax player said.
He initially conceived of the concept as a screenplay, but decided to work it into a full novel.
“We’ve kind of created our multiverse to the point now where I think we are going to just flesh it out and turn it into a book,” he said. “We’ve got all the dialogue, we’ve got everyone talking; all we have to do is write the boring parts. You know, when you read Tolkien, the description of a lake can go on for a page and a half. We haven’t done all that stuff, but that’s kind of the last process we’ll get into.”
The multi-faceted master musician was in Crystal Bay this month, playing the Crown Room Saturday, Jan. 28, with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. The show marked Denson’s second visit to the Lake Tahoe Basin in 2017; he made a non-business trip earlier this month, a family ski vacation to South Shore.
“I drove up on Saturday, right as the rain came,” he said. “I was up there with my kids, got a couple of days in at Heavenly and a day in at Squaw (Valley). It was kind of nasty but the last day was great.”
Founded in 1998, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe has been going strong for almost 20 years, keeping fans and newcomers on their feet with a passionately crafted blend of funk and soul that leans heavily toward the instrumental.
The current touring lineup is comprised of Richmond guitarist DJ Williams, Soulive drummer Alan Evans, Greyboy Allstars’ bassist Chris Stillwell, Crush Effects’ keyboardist David Veith, Seattle trumpeter Chris Littlefield and the newest member is lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman.
“I found (Freeman), he’s from Arkansas,” Denson said. “He’s been working on his own for years. I met him in Alaska a year and a half ago. I just ran into him through one of the promoters up there — we were playing a festival.”
The new instrument has spurred a renewed sense of momentum for the band, both onstage and in studio.
“I think we’re having a really good time right now,” Denson said. “The addition of the second guitar player, finally actually getting a solid member, has started to create some more energy as far as us going forward. We’re writing tunes together, we’re feeling like a band.”
One result of this revitalization is an upcoming album, due for release in the next few months, currently with the working title of “Smart Boy.”
“We’ve kind of finished the record and still are smoothing out the concept of the record,” Denson said. We’re actually talking about maybe going back in and recording a couple more tunes next week.”
“Most notable is the addition of the slide guitar…that, it’s that sound, and there’s more vocals on this record, so I think we’re taking another step forward.”
Another big step for Denson has been joining the Rolling Stones on the road, playing sax for the legendary rock group on a handful of tours annually, most recently on an October leg of tours throughout the American Southwest. He first appeared with the rock icons in late 2014, after Lenny Kravitz recommended Denson to Mick Jagger over dinner one evening.
In an admittedly snarky question, this author asked Denson to compare and contrast the experiences of appearing onstage with both the Rolling Stones and Slightly Stoopid. The jovial saxophonist issued a terse rebuttal, followed by a short laugh and a memorable follow-up.
“No. That’s a ridiculous question.”
“I tell people all the time, they ask me ‘what’s it like playing with the Rolling Stones?’ I say ‘it’s the fucking Rolling Stones.’ The biggest band on earth,” Denson said. “I will say when I’m with Slightly Stoopid, I look at the girls in the audience when I’m onstage, and when I’m with the Rolling Stones, I look at the Rolling Stones.”