Karl Denson is a legend in the world of jazz, funk, and rock. The innovative multi-instrumentalist, largely known for his work on the saxophone, got his start as a member of Lenny Kravitz’s group, playing on Kravitz’s Let Love Rule and Mama Said albums. He then went on to form the seminal soul-jazz group, The Greyboy Allstars, while also releasing three stellar albums of his own hardbop-inspired jazz.
Today, Denson leads his own group, Tiny Universe, and is also a touring member of the Rolling Stones, replacing the late Stones sax man Bobby Keys in 2014. The latest Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe LP is Gnomes & Badgers, a politically-charged funk and soul romp that addresses, among other topics, the current crisis at our southern border, and the divide in American politics.
A conservative man of faith, Denson recently has distanced himself from the GOP, of which he was once a supporter. He graciously sat down with AQ for a candid chat about his current worldview, his love of history, and his rock-solid commitment to his craft.
I’ve been listening to Gnomes & Badgers a lot since it came out, and it speaks to the current political divide in America. Was there a one current event in particular that moved you to utilize your art and music to make a statement?
No, it was really just where we’ve been and what we have going here. We have been going in this direction for a long time. And I am a Christian…. I’m a former Republican and conservative, but I kind of parted ways with those guys a while ago. It’s just getting crazier and crazier. You know, I feel like the idea of truth and honesty is all gone now, and we’ve allowed this clown to become the figurehead…. It’s just awareness that we’ve come to this point where we are a danger to everything that we hold dear, so we have to start speaking up.
A former Republican, as a Christian man, why do you think people latch onto Donald Trump?
Well, I think we’ve allowed our biases to go unchecked. You know, everybody has some kind of bias, and I think we’ve allowed our bias to go unchecked and for the Christian right-wing, it’s been this desire to take America back to where it was. It’s honestly just a white movement with a lack of understanding history and what the Constitution is. You know, those people need to really read the Constitution, and read a book about how the Constitution was put together, and all the things that went into it, and start understanding history…. Gnomes and Badgers is about us addressing our biases with some critical thinking and some empathy, because you can’t expect the right and left to just automatically think like [each other]. It really is going to take some dialogue and some study. It’s not going to be an automatic fit. I think we’re at the point now where unless we start to do that, that little bit of work together to figure out how to make it better, we’re going to just going to get worse.
The song “Changed My Way” addresses immigration and the current situation at the border. In your words, what’s the biggest misconception about that situation and what do you think is the biggest roadblock to a solution?
We just need some golden rules and some empathy for people, you know? If you don’t want a bunch of immigrants in your country, then get to work on trying to solve the problem on why they’re coming here. We allow Trump to stand up and castigate other people’s cultures, [but it’s ] our job as Americans is to try to help. We’ve got this great economy, this great system, and rather than us just yelling at everyone and telling them to get out of here, and we hate them, we should have some compassion and we should be doing work to help El Salvador and Nicaragua and Honduras become more stable countries—not just ignoring them and telling them that they’re rapists and murderers. You know what I mean? It’s like the whole idea of Christian charity has completely been thrown out the window in place of some kind of Christian selfishness. And I think there’s definitely a problem, but the way to fix the problem is to actually have some empathy and have some values. Our values are getting completely destroyed by this current administration.
Well, let’s talk about values and let’s talk about this current administration. As an African-American man in America, when you see the way Trump reacts to certain things like the events in Charlottesville, and the way he sort of panders to white nationalists, as someone who was a Republican, you must be thinking, ‘How far have we fallen?’ Right?
Yeah. I mean, I’m so distraught at the lack of rights and the ability to know the truth. You know, that’s the really scary part. When you’ve got a guy who says the things that this guy says, and then young, white males go out and start killing people, and we’re not able to associate the two, we’re just ignoring the truth and we’re putting everybody in danger, you know? Especially people of color. I have friends who voted for Trump and I’m kind of calling them out right now. Because I’m like, ‘You know what, Hillary was a bad choice, but we’re two years into this, and we’re coddling this guy who’s really maniacal and bad, and he has to be admonished…. Everybody’s just going completely milquetoast on this guy and allowing him to just rule with an iron fist. He is the makings of a tyrant, and instead of calling him to question, we’re just allowing him to do more and more bad things.
True. But, Karl, I do have to push back on you a little bit about something that you said just before, which was that Hillary was a bad choice, and that you have friends that voted for Trump whom you’re now calling out. Well, if Hillary was a bad choice, then what was Trump? Trump is obviously a horrible, horrible choice.
He was a worse choice! But, I empathize with people that had trouble swallowing the Hilary bullet, you know?
But you say now that you’re pushing back on your friends that voted for Trump—wouldn’t it have been more prudent to push back on them before the election?
No, no, no. Don’t get me wrong. I totally pushed back on them. I pushed hard. It was evident to everybody who I was going to vote for. I actually have friends, very close friends—and the ones I’m talking about right now are the ones that, after the election, I found out that they voted for Trump—that I totally called to task. Like, why would you do that and have me as your friend. And people of color as your friends, and [vote] for that idiot? That being said, after I voiced my disgust, I let it go. And now, we’re two years into this and they are all seeing what their choices have become. So, at this point, I at least expect an apology. I did get apologies from some people who I know won’t vote for him again. Other people were playing apologetics for him, and those are the people that I’ve had to really kind of cut off. We’re friends, but I’m not gonna act like I trust you now. You know? When you don’t have a problem with this guy, then you know, we’re not going to be as close as we used to be.
Let’s pivot to something that really unites us rather than divides us, and that’s music. One word that comes to mind when I think of your body of work is diverse. How do you keep things fresh, not only for yourself but for the musicians that you play with and play on your records?
I listen to a ton of music and I’ve gotten to the age now where I’m not trying to care about everything except for what I think is really good quality. So, as a writer—because I’m a writer first—I’m always trying to get new inspiration…. What I’m trying to do with my band is trying to help them. That is what I got that from growing up listening to good jazz for one, and then, being in The Greyboy Allstars was a great opportunity for me to kind of get shown some new style and new taste….
Chris Robinson once told me the thing about music is that it’s really important to be cognizant of what you like, and if you’re cognizant of what you like and what moves you, to paraphrase him, then the music finds you….
Yeah. I think that’s very true. I think you really do have to know what you like because as a result of that, you’re going to be able to repeat your own success rather than get caught up in what everybody else is doing or something… some trend or something that really isn’t coming from where you are. I have a few playlists that I bounce back and forth between. One of them is kind of an Afrobeat highlights playlist, which is like a lot of Fela Kuti…. Then I have a hip-hop one that’s like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar and Drake and Killer Mike. Then I have one that’s like Joni Mitchell and LaBelle and Macy Gray. I’ll bounce back and forth between those playlists… just listening to stuff at random and when I find something I like, you know, I’ll throw it into my new playlist and run with that. Cage the Elephant is a new one that I’m listening to a lot, so it’s like I just try to stay aware of music and listen to it enough to know if it’s good or not, and if I really like it, then I try to absorb the good stuff.
Speaking of the good stuff, you’ve been a touring member of The Rolling Stones since 2014. How did that come about? And since then, what has that experience been like?
Well, Lenny Kravitz—I worked with Lenny back from 1988 to 1993—and so Lenny and Mick are good friends, and they were having dinner when Bobby (Keys) got sick, and Lenny threw my hat in the ring. So a week later, I had the gig, and then a week after that, I was in Australia rehearsing with The Rolling Stones.
It’s pretty wild to have something so whirlwind like that happen, right?
Yeah. It was really an insane little slice of time. It’s one of those things where you just kind of keep plugging away and then something cool happens. It’s really just like that.
I tell you, sometimes at rehearsals, they play a lot of different material that nobody gets to hear but us. I mean, the depth of their songbook is pretty astounding. That’s one of those things where for me, as a writer, it’s very inspiring to just have them pull a song out like “Play with Fire,” you know? Or one day it’s “Through and Through.” And I’m just sitting there going, ‘Man, these guys have a lot of frickin’ songs!” So I’m kind of on that quest of, ‘How many good songs can I write in my lifetime?’
Be sure to catch Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe on Aug. 23 at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, and on Aug. 24 at the Blues BBQ Festival at Hudson River Park in NYC!