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Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe: not just soul, but speakeasy jazz club bump’n’grind with gospel vocals

March 29, 2019

The truth plays saxophone in Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Frontman and singer Karl Denson fuses groove funk, blues, gospel, soul and jazz into soul music on fire. KDTU’s Gnomes & Badgers via Seven Spheres Records delivers a dark, magical, animalistic view of the world from this master craftsman of song.

In the five years since his last release, what has changed? As Roland of Gilead in The Gunslinger would say, the world has moved on. Those five years have inspired a shift in sound textures for Denson, twisting his work into a surreal musical garden. This is an angry Karl Denson who has collected eleven satisfying tracks of funktastic jazz and blues-driven groove. An essence of gospel connects with the hellish political and social times depicted in the lyrics throughout the record colored with funky horns. Strutting in, opening with “What If You Knew” like a maniacal pied piper, the party’s on. From “Gossip” to “I’m Your Biggest Fan,” this gnome’s head is twisting in dark self reflection.

Accepting this full flight into KDTU reality are guitarist DJ Williams and lap steel guitarist Seth Freeman. Chris Littlefield plays trumpet while organist David Veith throws in with former Greyboy bassist Chris Stillwell and explosive drummer Zak Najor. Featured guest appearances on Gnomes & Badgers from Chuck Leavell (The Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers), Austin producer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada, NOLA R&B royalty Ivan Neville, guitar-slinging singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, and New Orleans guitar hero Anders Osborne make this record a beast to be reckoned with.

Hendrix’s soul lives in the spaces between each note of “Change My Way,” bleeding through every bit. This song should get dropped into a time capsule to define the world’s current insanity for future historical study. Haunting, from start to finish. Tripping back in with trademark positivity, “Can We Trade” brings a toe tapping vibe back into the recording, as gang vocals are working it out with horns on this cut. Saxophones wrap all around this dance through the forest. Definitely dividing the album into two camps, “Smart Boy” is the classic horn-driven song structure that fans of the jazz man love. Filled with stellar piano and organ work, this is the standout funk track of the album.

“Something Sweet” is a doorway into a place where soul lives eternally. But it’s not just soul, it’s speakeasy jazz club bump’n’grind with gospel vocals. Have I mentioned the word genius lately? Close your eyes, listen. Its a transformative sexperience. Whiplashing from that musical history trip into the present, “Time to Pray” is an ominous, head-shaking, toe-tapping, guitar-driven flash.

Gnomes & Badgers is a masterclass in musicianship, and it seems unfair to single out any one particular sound other than the collective. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe wants fans to “Just Remember” wandering away from Gnomes & Badgers. Achingly hopeful, KTDU’s universe is heading back to the silence which comes at the end of the record with subtle beauty. Denson points out through his art that no matter how exceptionally messed up the world is right now, new ideas can bring new possibilities for positive, hopeful change. —Lisa Whealy

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Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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