Return to jazz roots

Karl Denson takes break from singing to play the saxophone during tour with his trio


Karl Denson is taking a step back from singing to get back to the music.

The saxophonist has played with Lenny Kravitz, released several solo albums and fronted the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. But he is going low key in the coming months. He's touring small clubs across the country with his new jazz trio, which plays Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis Saturday and the 8x10 in Federal Hill Sunday.

Denson hasn't tinkered extensively with a traditional jazz format since his pre-Kravitz days in the late '80s, when he performed in anything from a duo to a quintet. Now, fresh off a tour with a reunited Greyboy Allstars, the soul jazz band that he fronts and plays sax and flute in, Denson is ready to focus on his new tour.

"It's a chance to get back to the roots and concentrate on being a saxophonist rather than a front man and a singer," Denson said. He sees the project as a musical challenge, which has made him change his practice routine and "prepare for these shows in a whole different way."

The Karl Denson Jazz Trio includes Anthony Smith from Global Funk and Giant People on keyboards and Brett Sanders on drums. Like the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, the trio is part of Denson's vision of jazz as dance music.

"It's gotta have some kind of groove on it to be connected to the jazz tradition that I'm familiar with," he said.

The music has a lot of form and composition, with traditional jazz and blues rhythms, but also incorporates elements of improvisation and the danceable new jazz style Denson plays in his other bands, he said. While touring with Kravitz, Denson collaborated with DJ Greyboy on "Unwind Your Mind," which became a dance hit in Europe.

In the meantime, keyboardist Robert Walter, bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor were playing jazz and funk together in San Diego. In what Denson said was an effort to form a band that played the kind of music he was spinning, DJ Greyboy introduced Stillwell, Najor and Walter to Denson and guitarist Elgin Park, an already well-established musician.

"The first rehearsal was like, `Wow, this sounds good. Let's do more of this,'" Denson said.

The Greyboy Allstars were born, playing groove jazz and boogaloo, which is R&B and soul coupled with mambo and Cuban son montuno.

When the Allstars decided to take a long touring hiatus in 1998, Denson assembled his own band, which became Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.

With band members coming from different backgrounds - mostly jazz and Latin music - Denson said it took years and a lot of patience to get to a point where the band could change styles but keep the consistency. The band uses R&B, soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz, rock and Latin music to create its upbeat fusion.

The jazz trio is a temporary diversion for Denson while Tiny Universe finishes work on its coming album, which he said will probably come out next summer. To hold fans over until then, the band will release an EP in September. Denson may also release a duo record he did with Chris Wood, bassist for acid jazz band Medeski, Martin and Wood, around the same time.

Fans can also look forward to the January release of a new Greyboy Allstars album. The group recently started playing out again and is trying to get in the rhythm of releasing records in January, recording new ones in February and touring in the spring, Denson said.

As far as future plans, Denson said he'd like to do a really huge band with big horn and percussion sections, an extra guitar and an extra keyboard similar to that of Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti.

"But for now, this trio is the most fun thing I can think of," he said.

The Karl Denson Jazz Trio plays Rams Head Tavern at 33 West St. in Annapolis Saturday at 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and the show is 21 and older. Call 410-268-4545 or visit The trio also plays the 8x10 at 10 E. Cross St. in Federal Hill Sunday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 410-625-2000 or visit

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