Q&A with Karl Denson: Blues of Communication

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe released their first album in five years, Gnomes and Badgers, on March 8 via Seven Spheres Records. The 11-track effort marks an evolution for bandleader, saxophonist-vocalist Karl Denson, as a songwriter, and it is partly inspired by the current political scene, speaking to a larger message of fellowship across generations, genders, religions and cultures by merging funk, soul, rock, jazz and, most importantly, blues.

Denson spoke with JAZZIZ about Gnomes and Badgers, the communicative power of the blues and how he feels his songwriting matured during the making of this album. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: Where did the title of the record, Gnomes and Badgers come from?

KARL DENSON: I wanted the title of the album to have a blues feel and to evoke the idea of people communicating on different levels, whether it’s about politics or love or social issues. The Gnomes and Badgers idea came by accident; I thought it evoked the idea of very different people communicating. I feel like, right now, we’re lacking empathy. We’re not listening to each other, we’re just talking. That’s really what this record is about; it’s about listening to each other as well as having ideas. Having ideas and having your own feelings and all that is very important but listening is maybe even more important.

So it’s appropriate that you deal with the theme of communication through the blues on this album, given that the history of the blues is a history of communication.

Right, which goes into the whole history of music, and that goes into the whole history of the country and that goes into the whole history of the world. You’ve got the European tradition and the African tradition meeting the Native American tradition in it and it’s just amazing – the whole melting pot. And the fact that we’ve got people trying to pull that melting pot apart right now is what’s really tragic because they’re not embracing the idea that this world experiment we’ve done has ended up in all these beautiful different flavors, these different styles and textures that we’ve created.

Do you feel like Gnomes and Badgers marks an evolution in your music?

It definitely does. I consider myself a composer first and foremost, so I think compositionally this record feels very rewarding for me because I started as a jazz saxophone player and then came the idea of me singing, and then came the idea of learning how to sing, and then came the idea of learning to write lyrics. So, this record for me is kind of a culmination of all those years of trying to figure this whole thing out. I feel like I’ve got a decent handle on the songwriting side of things this time and I’m really looking forward to the next record just from the standpoint of that growth.

Do you feel you’ve also evolved with this record as a bandleader?

Yes. My band is finally where I want it to be and that was kind of the easiest part of this equation – realizing now that I don’t have to really tell the band what to do anymore. I can literally come in with a melody and start singing it to them and allow them to create the palette that we’re working from.

You also wrote a couple of songs with Anders Osborne. What was that collaboration like?

Mature. It was a mature collaboration. Anders is a real songwriter and he changed my way of working with a song. I’d come to him and with my little bits and ideas and he’s just very intuitive in how he approaches them. He doesn’t overthink them, he kind of just learns them and plays along with them until all of a sudden, something natural comes out. He’s kind of my mentor in a way, as a writer.

Why did Gnomes & Badgers take a few years to make?

I’m kind of a slow person in general. I don’t consider myself a fast guy. I was also doing 120 to 150 gigs a year and with all the other stuff that I’m doing, finishing the record was a task. And then this whole writing lyrics and writing vocal tunes process was a big process so, this is actually the end of the third iteration of this record. We did a bunch of sessions, kind of had a half-record done and then did some more sessions – the sessions with Anders and Ivan Neville – and got another half of a record done. Then we smashed those two together and realized it was a little bit scattered. Finally, the band came together in a way that worked on the final set of sessions. We did nine tunes in three days and they were very complete. I’m hoping the next record goes a lot faster but also that we can get the same feeling out of it.

Do you find it difficult to be a slow person in the fast-paced world that we’re living in?

Yes, it is, but sometimes you’ve got to go at your own pace because otherwise, you end up doing things that you’re not really feeling. I feel like you’ve gotta go with your own pace in order to figure out what you really do well. It’s kind of like when you’re having a debate or an argument. Sometimes, you’ve gotta let some of the points of the discussion get past you and come back to them later, give yourself the time to chew on them. That’s kind of how I am about just conversation in general. I like to chew on things and figure it out. Hopefully, I’m becoming more competent and can go faster as life goes on. That’s the goal.

It sounds like you experience making music also as a constant learning process.

That’s definitely it. On that note, right now, I’m so inspired by the latest Wayne Shorter record, Emanon. He’s my inspiration right now. This guy is 85 years old and he just wrote a masterwork, and he just keeps getting better. That’s really the inspiration of music and life to me; it’s that you can keep getting better.

You’ve also worked within a variety of different genres and styles throughout your career. Do you feel like having that variety in your career is very important to you?

Definitely. I like what I’ve done thus far and it’s rewarding right now. My kids are starting to listen to my straight-ahead records and they actually know them and I love those records. It’s fun to watch the growth that I’ve had and to have people recognize that I’ve had these multiple periods in my life. That’s also what I love about Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and all those greats. They flow with the time and I definitely consider that to be my goal.

Will you be taking Tiny Universe and Gnomes & Badgers on the road?

We’ve got a nice full calendar in March and then in the summer, I’m going to be touring with The Rolling Stones through the end of July. After that, we’ll get right back to promoting the Gnomes & Badgers record into the fall.

What’s it like to play with The Rolling Stones?

It’s like a really awesome work vacation. They work two days a week compared to me, working five to six and in a different city every night. They’ll even stay in a city for three to five days. So, it’s really relaxing and fun and then, I get to hang out with The Rolling Stones, which is pretty amazing!

Photos by Robbie Jeffers.

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