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Sax sampler

Karl Denson was influenced by jazz, funk and R&B, got his big career boost from Lenny Kravitz and says that club DJs are a great programming influence.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2003

Karl Denson, the Jam Nation's favorite saxophonist, kick-started his career the old-fashioned way, on the radio, because of a solo break on Lenny Kravitz's once omnipresent 1989 single Let Love Rule.

Retro-minded rocker Kravitz hired Denson for two more albums and several extensive concert treks. The saxophonist's high-profile gig ended in 1993, when Kravitz streamlined his band.

"It was a nice time," Denson said from a tour stop in Atlanta. "His thing was blowing up, and it was a great record."

"I think I got a lot more from (club) DJs, as far as programming shows and stuff like that, than from Lenny. But I definitely took notice of what he did while I was with him."

The tenor saxophonist, flutist and singer, a Southern California native, segued quickly from his job with Kravitz to a collaboration with DJ Greyboy (Andreas Stevens) in the San Diego act the Greyboy Allstars, immensely popular with the jam-band crowd.

The acid jazz and soul group, also featuring noted keyboardist Robert Walter, toured the United States and Europe, released club hit Unwind Your Mind and recorded several discs before splitting up in 1997. The group has reunited on several occasions.

Along the way, Denson released several acoustic jazz CDs, including Chunky Pecan Pie, with a pair of former Miles Davis sidemen, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Denson's major-label solo debut, Dance Lesson #2, was released on Blue Note two years ago.

Denson's latest band, Tiny Universe, organized in 1998, often sounds like a sampler of its leader's influences. As a junior-high saxophonist, Denson tuned into the playing of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Eddie Harris and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Later, he dug into the flute playing of Kirk and Hubert Laws. James Brown, Sly Stone and the Ohio Players were also heard in the Denson house.

A long list of guests joined Tiny Universe on last year's The Bridge, including old Greyboy Allstars bandmate Walter, bassist Chris Wood (Medeski Martin and Wood), DJ Logic, guitarists Charlie Hunter and Melvin Sparks, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Hugh Ragin, trombonist Fred Wesley and organists Lonnie Liston Smith and Ron Levy.

The program, including a cover of Curtis Mayfield's Check Out Your Mind, jumped from funk to fusion-edged jazz to R&B. The diversity was by intent, Denson said.

"The DJ idea is where I'm coming from, in terms of like when you hear a really great DJ play some good instrumental jazz records and he drops some cool hip-hop stuff and then some old-school R&B, and kind of mixes it up," he said. "When you hear some jazz stuff, it's good and tight, and the same with the other stuff. It's about having the freedom to do a lot of different things without restriction."

If you go

Karl Denson performs at 8 tonight at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. No opening act.

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