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CREATING SPACE: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe expands on the Greenfield Lake stage

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Head to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater to see Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on Thursday, September 17.

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For the past 30 years Karl Denson has been carving his niche into the jazz, soul and funk genres. For the last 20, he’s done it at the center of his Tiny Universe. He and his band continue to expand creatively, which has not gone unnoticed by peers they collaborate with and fans they entertain year after year.

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe plays at Greenfield Lake this week. Courtesy photo

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays at Greenfield Lake this week. Courtesy photo

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe will return to Wilmington once again to meet Port City fans at the Greenfield Lake Amphitheater stage on Thursday, September 17.

These high-energy players are known for breathing new life into cover songs, as well as performing high-octane originals like “Everybody Knows That” from 2014’s “New Ammo” that continue to grow from the recording studio to stage. With jazz and variations of it, everything is pretty much natural improvisation for Denson and Tiny Universe. “We play so many shows every year and in the process we allow the music to dictate where to go,” Denson tells encore.

Denson’s Tiny Universe bandmates help map out the course of music. Alongside guitarist DJ Williams, Soulive drummer Alan Evans, bassist Chris Stillwell of Greyboy Allstars, Crush Effects David Veith (keys), and Chris Littlefield on the trumpet, every night is packed with spontaneity and vigor. “It’s also the luxury of listening for ideas,” Denson says. “[‘New Ammo’] was a record where I definitely felt like it came together as a band.”

The relationship with the band is not unlike a mentorship: encouraging them to grow and do their own projects.

Denson started his journey as a young musician in the early 1980s with an R&B band managed by Don Cornelius of Soul Train. Since, he has recorded with talents from Jack DeJohnette and Slightly Stoopid to Blind Boys of Alabama and Blackalicious. He also co-founded The Greyboy Allstars, with whom he’s led in completing four studio albums since forming the jazz band in 1993.

But his first real platform in the industry came with Lenny Kravitz and his work on “Let Love Rule” (1989) and “Mama Said” (1991). “That was the catalyst,” Denson explains. “I got a real gig, making real money, and I thought, ‘Now what am I going to do in my career?’ Lenny was the staging point for everything I’ve done since.”

Denson most recently shared the stage with The Rolling Stones on their 2015 summer Zip Code Tour across the United States. “You know when people ask what it was like, I just go, ‘It’s the fuckin’ Rolling Stones,’” he quips. “Musically, as much as I love the records, watching them do it live every night really gives a sense of how they create space, and that’s something I’m really pushing with my guys right now. . . . [and] it’s not what you play, but what you don’t play. As people learn how to play their instruments, they just play, they forget to breathe, and they forget to leave space. Space is just as important as the notes.”

“New Ammo” delivered 13 tracks made for the dance floor. The album was his debut with Slightly Stoopid’s self-titled record label.  Because they are covers from actual movies, it often plays like a spy or action-film soundtrack at times. “‘Apres Ski’ is from some weird skiing movie from ‘75,” Denson tells. “‘The Duel’ is from a Burt Reynolds and Ann Margret movie, and ‘Grenadiers’ is from a Russ Meyer film called ‘Cherry, Harry & Raquel!’” ( The latter 1970 flick is not one to pull up on Netflix before the kiddos go to bed.)

Denson watches and listens to a wide range of artists in varied stages of their careers—Prince’s “Dirty Mind” (1980) was on the rotation before our phone call. Denson often covers his favorites on tour. “New Ammo” features versions of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes, Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up To Dry” and more.

“‘Sure Shot’ came out of a Beastie Boys tribute we did and, just because of the flute, we kinda made something cool out of it and I wanted to keep it,”  he adds. “The Cold War Kids’ tune, I just like our version, and we came up with a cool little riff in the middle of it that felt good.”

The instrumentals in “New Ammo” are aggressive and take the lead on the album, something Denson has steered away from with a new studio project he’s been testing out on the road. “[‘New Ammo’] is very dense,” he jokes. “The new record is much less muscular . . . and [with] more vocals.”

Collaborations pop up on “New Ammo” as well, with Mike Dillon, The Cosmic Horns and Nicki Bluhm, who adds her powerhouse vocals to “My Baby.” Denson’s latest project under construction comes with collaborators like Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk and soulful, Americana singer-songwriter and guitarist Anders Osborne.

“I brought those guys in to help in the same process of building space,” Denson cites of Osborne’s guitar playing. “I picked up the guitar a couple of years ago, too, so it’s kind of my guitar musings—by definition, pretty primitive—but it’s more like a simpler rock ‘n’ roll style from the last record.”

While Denson is known primarily for playing sax and flute, he’s trying to add the guitar to his repertoire. “I decided that the saxophone was very lonely,” he says. “I was working on some tunes on a cruise and I got into a jam session with a bunch of people, like George Porter and Anders Osborne, and they were talking, singing and giving instruction. I thought, ‘I want to be able to talk and play.’”

So he came home with the determination to learn how to play guitar.

While Denson has been fiddling around with the new instrument—not yet close to perfecting it—it’s helped him progress as a songwriter.  “I always write, that’s really my main job, but playing guitar has really motivated my writing,” he says. “But you won’t be hearing my guitar playing. It won’t be making it to the record, that’s for sure.”

Throughout the last year of this tour, Denson has brought on various guest guitarista for the new songs and direction of sounds the album is taking the band. Wilmingtonians can expect slide guitar talents from Chris Mulé of the Honey Island Swamp Band. “They’re a very cool, very Americana southern rock band,” Denson says.

This latest album is yet to be named, but fans should look for its release later on this year. First, they can head to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater to see Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on Thursday, September 17. Doors open at 5 p.m. and show starts at 6 p.m. For tickets and details, visit

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Saturday, September 19
Doors 5 p.m., Show 6 p.m.
Tickets: $20 adv / $25 door
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheatre Dr.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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