Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – New Ammo (2014)

Karl Denson’s longtime outfit Tiny Universe has evolved a bit over the past fifteen or so years, but the basic mission has always been to make audiences move. “…a dance band that dips into the jazz realm,” explains Denson. After putting the group on ice in the mid-90s, Denson reconvened it for 2009’s Brother’s Keeper and it’s angular sophistication that sprung forth from a James Brown kick drum/snare beat on virtually every track evoked most worthwhile styles of party music that flourished in the 70s but could only be made in the present day; it’s the kind of record Denson’s former boss Lenny Kravitz could have made on a good day.

Four and a half years later, KDTU returns with a follow up, and the group has changed again: fattening up the horn section while at the same time swapping some of the former’s poise for a frayed rock edge. New Ammo (on sale February 4) uncovers more facets for the former Greyboy Allstars saxophonist and flautist. Joining Denson’s instruments and vocals are DJ Williams on guitar, Chris Littlefield on trumpet, John Staten on drums, Chris Stillwell on bass and David Veith on keys. Andy Geib’s trombone and Daniel De La Cruz’s baritone sax bolster the bank of horns and longtime Denson collaborators Robert Walter (keys) and Mike Dillon (vibes, percussion) make guest appearances.

The tweaks work to perfection on the swaggering “Grenadiers,” the Steppenwolf groove of “The Duel” and the hard-edged funk of “Hang Me Up To Dry.” If the first two of these tunes sound like they came from action B-movies from the Nixon Administration, that’s because they did. Denson found music gold in the scores of these long-forgotten flicks, and by applying the Tiny Universe treatment to those songs, probably improving on them a great deal on the originals. “Apres Ski” is another one with cinematic roots and in KDTU’s hands, it sounds almost like a classic Blood Sweat and Tears sans the vocals.

Denson found more contemporary sources, too: the band funkifies the Whites Stripes’ simple riff of “Seven Nation Army” and Jack White’s vox is replaced by Denson’s dirty flute. And the flute from the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” is, natch, carried over nearly intact by Denson, with a bunch of looping, scratching and sampling recreated out of live instruments. Originals like “Everybody Knows That,” “Cheerleader” and “New Ammo” are hot, sweaty J.B. type workouts that reference straight back to the original KDTU sound, assuring us they didn’t disavow their beginnings.

The biggest “dip into the jazz realm” is saved for the ten-minute track that concludes New Ammo, “Odysseus,” an old Tiny Universe tune pulled off the shelf. It’s set at an agreeable medium simmer for most of the time, with one tough figure bracketed by a smoother one. Williams’ guitar and guest Anthony Smith’s vibes highlight the jam.

Oh, and have I told you about the blues-rockin’ single, “My Baby,” featuring Denson trading lyric lines with San Francisco’s rising star Nicki Bluhm? Why, yes…yes, I did.

By the time I get done listening to this album, I can understand why the band is called “Tiny Universe.” There are so many things that goes into the music — a whole universe of things — and Denson as usual does such a masterful job blurring the lines that in the end, you don’t really care what kind of music to call it because in the end it all just makes you want to dance and have a good time with it.

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Visit Karl Denson’s website for more info.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews.com.