Karl Denson brings his saxophone, flute and powerful voice back to Seattle for two nights at Nectar Lounge in Fremont March 20 and 21 to celebrate his brand new album Gnomes and Badgers. I spoke to him earlier this week about his first album in five years, and his varied career working with Lenny Kravitz, The Rolling Stones, Seattle's sax hero Skerik, and a surreal day with Eddie Murphy.
Gnomes and Badgers is Denson's heartfelt musical answer to the division in our country, the "gnomes and badgers" who can't seem to get along. It's on the rockin' blues side of Denson's soulful musical persona, with plenty of his singing featured throughout. Lyrically, he said: "It's a conversational record. There's a lot to bite into as far as the themes and what I'm trying to get people to think about."
About a year and a half ago, Denson's band had completed a record, but "...it wasn't concise, it felt jumbled," he says. Three songs from those sessions appear on Gnomes and Badgers, with eight more written and co-written more recently to complete a more focused theme. Adding to the excitement are special guests such as Texas singer-songwriter Lukas Nelson, New Orleans guitar hero Anders Osborne, Rolling Stones bandmate Chuck Leavell, and R&B legend Ivan Neville.
On the album's second single (with video) "Change My Way," Denson says he's calling out the church. "I think from a political standpoint, the church is being drawn into a position of not being Christ-like," he says. "The selfishness right now is at an all time high and we need to back up a little bit."
Our conversation backed up a bit at this point, and I asked about Karl Denson's many varied collaborations through his career. One of his first important musical relationships was with rocker Lenny Kravitz for five years in the late '80s and early '90s as Kravitz came to fame with hits like "Let Love Rule" and "Are You Gonna Go My Way." As Denson tells it, Kravitz has a work ethic that's slightly different from most musicians.
He told me, "Lenny's a morning guy, a real crack-of-dawn, get-up-get-moving kind of guy. While I was living with him in New York, working on 'Let Love Rule,' we'd be up by 9 a.m. and in the studio by 10 or 11, which is completely odd for musicians. We're normally up at a crack-of-one.
"He would work all day, till about 5 or 6, and then have dinner... he was kind of like a farmer. It was different on tour, this was 'recording Kravitz.' We working musicians are working in between everything, but when you have record deals you don't really have to."
On the subject of his Seattle-New-Orleans collaborations, Denson told a great recent story about watching the New Orleans Saints in the NFL playoffs this winter with sax icon Skerik and talented drummer Stanton Moore. "Skerik's kind of the ringleader," he said.
"He just wants to play music all the time. As we're watching the game, he's with Stanton rooting for the Saints, though he doesn't really care about football." They had two sold-out shows in Seattle, and had just added another show that fell on Super Bowl Sunday.
"Stanton asks me, 'Karl, what would you do? What if my team is in the Super Bowl and I'm not at home?' I told him he should find a way to watch it. Then, at that moment, Skerik started rooting against the Saints! His loyalty is always to the music."
In the past few years, Denson has taken the saxophone role with The Rolling Stones on tour. With rock stars of that stature, how much time does he spend with the band? "I see them mostly during rehearsals before the tour," he says. "They play a lot of their catalog in rehearsals, which is awesome.
"I'll tell you a rock 'n' roll story: we were playing in London, I walk up to Keith Richards at sound check and I go, 'Keith, I know you live in Connecticut now. So, when you're home in London, what's the thing you miss? Do you have a favorite restaurant, fish and chips... what do you miss?' He goes, 'When I was a kid, this whole city smelled like coal oil and piss. I miss that.' I thought, now that's rock 'n' roll, right there!"
Something I hadn't realized before researching for this interview, Denson got an early break in show business with a bit part in the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy "Coming to America." Without facial hair at the tender age of 21, you can spot Denson on saxophone in a band called Sexual Chocolate, wearing matching baby blue tuxedos, backing up Murphy's loungy-soul singer character Randy Watson.
Needless to say, working with Murphy at his comedic peak was a dream come true. Denson told me, "That was like a dream. The drummer in the band got a job working for (the film's director) John Landis as a gopher. Landis found out that he had a band, and somehow we just ended up there.
"Eddie was at the top of his game, Arsenio Hall is there, and then there's a bunch of beautiful girls in bikinis and we're just standing there... it was surreal. We didn't hang out with Eddie, he was too big at that time. In hindsight, I really love comedy, and I don't think there's anybody close to the talent of Eddie Murphy."
With the release of Gnomes and Badgers, and a big tour about to begin, Denson will be collecting many more stories of his life in show business. The road trip includes the upcoming nights at Nectar Lounge in Seattle, and Denson says he's thrilled to spend more time in our corner of the country.
He says, "Seattle's a really hip town. We've worked really hard over the years trying to be cool enough to garner an audience in Seattle. I've always held the city in high esteem style-wise." He has some of that Puget Sound coolness featured in his Tiny Universe band, too.
On trumpet and flugelhorn, Seattle-native Chris Littlefield is like Denson's brother, "...like my Bobby Byrd (James Brown's right hand man). He's invaluable in the band, the horn playing, the singing... and he dances better than he plays trumpet. His family is one of my favorite things, too, so that's another reason I'm excited to get to Seattle, to see them."
Tune in for The New Cool this Saturday afternoon to hear one of my favorites from the new album, "Can We Trade," and stop by Nectar for the upcoming Karl Denson shows with yours truly opening both nights with my collection of funk, soul and jazz vinyl. Now give it up for Sexual Chocolate!
The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.