For nearly three decades, Karl Denson has been blowing up stages around the globe. Now, aided by his longstanding band of brothers, the Tiny Universe, he unleashes his most potent arsenal to date with the band’s fourth release, New Ammo (Stoopid Records). Always a formidable unit, the band is bolstered by the doubling of its already raucous horn frontline, and an invigorated orchestral approach inspired by the gritty, funk-fueled soundtracks of 1970s’ cinema.

New Ammo follows the 2009 release of Brother’s Keeper, which marked the return to action of the Tiny Universe after a four-year hiatus and a brief downsizing of the band. Their latest effort is a marked departure from the more roots-oriented feel of its predecessor, both revisiting the classic swagger of earlier Tiny Universe albums while moving forward into a more expansive, full-throttle rock sound. The album spotlights the irresistible melodies, infectious choruses, and relentless grooves that have established Denson as a modern music icon.

“My approach has always been that we’re a dance band that dips into the jazz realm,” Denson says. “It’s pretty much still the same, but things change as you listen to more music which develops your artistic outlook on things. So along with our regular funk fare, we’re trying to orchestrate up a bit, with music, art and thought being our new ammunition.”

This new approach was prompted by Denson’s arrangements of several cues from film scores. But unlike the sweeping symphonic soundtracks that might come to mind, his interest was in the more down-and-dirty sound of early-seventies drive-in and grindhouse fare. The first example is “Grenadiers,” from Bill Loose’s score for Cherry, Harry & Raquel!, an early entry in the filmography of buxom-badass filmmaker Russ Meyer. In Denson’s hands, the music marries grungy guitar riffs with blaring horns and staggering rhythms. Next he took on an arrangements of “Après Ski,” composed by Jacques Crevier for the Quebecois sex comedy of the same name, and “The Duel,” written by Lenny Stack for the 1970 biker film C.C. and Company, starring football legend Joe Namath and Ann-Margret.

“Discovering ‘Grenadiers’ was the beginning of this record,” Denson recalls. “I was trying to figure out what the band was for a long time. We were unsure where we were going until we discovered this was something that we did well. I feel like this record is the beginning of a new phase for the Tiny Universe.”

On New Ammo, Denson is joined by Chris Stilwell (bass), David Veith (organ, Rhodes), Chris Littlefield (trumpet), DJ Williams (guitar) and John Staten (drums), supplemented by trombonist Andy Geib and baritone saxophonist Daniel De La Cruz. In addition, the album features a number of special guests, including frequent Denson collaborators Robert Walter on keyboards and Mike Dillon on vibes and percussion. Anthony Smith is also featured on vibes, and singer Nicki Bluhm joins in on the album’s first single, “My Baby.”

A San Francisco-based singer/songwriter, Bluhm was introduced to Denson through mutual friends who share the saxophonist’s love for the Kansas City Chiefs—a lonely prospect in Southern California. Bluhm—who leads the band The Gramblers—adds a silkiness to the blues rave-up “My Baby,” on which she duets with Denson. The song was inspired by the bandleader’s first stab at a guitar riff after picking up the instrument last year—not that his new talent will be in evidence in the live setting. “I don’t think the guys are going to let me grace the stage with my guitar skills very soon,” Denson insists with a laugh.

New Ammo arrives on the heels of a handful of tributes that Denson has spearheaded over the last few years, including a tour that re-imagined The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers as well as this past year’s U.S. jaunt dubbed, “A Ray Charles Boogaloo Dance Party.” Yet another recent tribute, celebrating the music of the Beastie Boys, was realized in part by Denson’s current roll as saxophonist for the San Diego reggae-rock band Slightly Stoopid. In 2012, the Tiny Universe and Slightly Stoopid joined forces for a number of shows that dug deep into the Beasties’ repertoire. The connection between the two was so deep and resounding that Slightly Stoopid insisted upon releasing Denson’s latest album on their record label, Stoopid Records. “It’s a fun job and I get to hang out with cool people,” Denson says of his stints with Slightly Stoopid. “We’re making strides from both sides. I’m helping them grow musically and they’re helping me grow artistically. And obviously, the benefit of having a label where people believe in you is always a good thing.”

Carried over from that Beasties’ tribute tour and into the recording sessions for New Ammo was the classic “Sure Shot.” Taken from the 1994 album Ill Communication, it becomes a flute showcase for Denson. As in the Tiny Universe’s tribute shows, all of the samples and loops are recreated using live instruments.

“Sure Shot” is one of three pop covers on New Ammo, which also includes a searing take on Cold War Kids’ “Hang Me Up to Dry” with Denson’s distorted vocals and heavy riffery supplied by “closet metal-head” Chris Stillwell, and a groove-heavy rendition of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” that launches Robert Walter into his trademark soulful Rhodes solo.

Denson’s work with Slightly Stoopid also inspired him to emulate their short, direct songwriting approach, leading to the reggae-inflected “Three Trials of Strength” (which clocks in at a mere 2:30). That piece is balanced by the album’s closer, the appropriately epic, ten-minute-plus “Odysseus.” The tune dates back more than a decade, but was dropped from the repertoire until Denson rediscovered it recently while listening to the band’s performance from the 2002 Bonnaroo Festival. It’s given new life by the vivid horns and by Anthony Smith’s inspired vibraphone playing.

The rest of the band also contributes several of the album’s originals. Chris Stillwell’s “Malgorium”, another rediscovery, is an adrenaline-fueled, fusion-tinged anthem that fits perfectly with the Tiny Universe’s cinematically-inspired reinvention. Guitarist DJ Williams wrote the title tune, and keyboardist David Veith penned “Cheerleader,” which was given its title by Denson’s desire to dance to the song a la Toni Basil in her video for the ‘80s hit “Mickey” – surely another good reason to catch the band live, just in case he decides to trade his sax for a pair of pom-poms. “Everybody Knows That,” a straight-up funk blast co-written by Denson and Williams with a nerdy background story, completes the collection.

From his early days as a member of Lenny Kravitz’s band to his critically acclaimed work as a founder of boogaloo revivalists The Greyboy Allstars, as the saxophonist for Slightly Stoopid straight through to his primary creative vehicle, the Tiny Universe, Denson has slowly and steadily building a reputation that now verges on legendary status. With the latest addition to his oeuvre—the relentless 13-track dance floor grenade, New Ammo—2014 will find him adding yet another compelling chapter to this legacy. In Denson’s own words: “We’ve finally figured out how to capture in the studio what the Tiny Universe does live. We move around a lot musically, but this record reflects who we are as a band and where we’re headed with our music.”

 
 

Photography © 2017 Karl Denson. All Rights Reserved.

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Contact

Kevin Calabro | 917-838-4613 | kevin@calabromusicmedia.com