music / Columns

Jam Central Station: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – Gnomes and Badgers

March 9, 2019 | Posted by Jeff Modzelewski



Karl Denson is one of the top sax players and band leaders around. In addition to playing and touring with acts such as Lenny Kravitz and The Rolling Stones, Denson has built a solid reputation through his own music. He and his Tiny Universe band move from concert halls to jazz events to jam band festivals, all the while putting together an infectious show that you can’t help but dance to. On his most recent album, Gnomes and Badgers, Denson and his band continue that tradition.

The album primarily focuses on Denson’s ability to write a funky tune with a great hook. There aren’t too many dives into deep funk territory, as everything that Denson and his band does on this album goes to serve the purpose of a great song. There’s plenty of room for the band members to shine without anything ever becoming showy. The opening “What If You Knew” sets a fast pace, with quick paced horn lines throughout the verse and a chorus that shows a bit of Denson’s soulful side. “Gossip” follows the same trend, with a smooth sound led by Denson’s vocals and some nice work from the guitar. Denson says he’s gonna “play it real funky” and that’s what the band does. “Change My Way” brings a deeper, more visceral guitar town to the beginning of the track, laying down a base for the keys and drums to set a rhythm over. A nice change of pace here, getting a little slower and a little groovier without becoming plodding or a ballad. A very well-constructed tune where everything plays to support the vocal line.

“I’m Your Biggest Fan” is another great groove. A little more rise and fall with the horns. “Can We Trade” starts with a rip with the guitar, and it’s one of the few songs where the percussion really stands out. Usually the percussion fills a nice little gap in the drums, but in this one you can really hear the percussion taking a lead role in the rhythm section. It’s a subtle difference but it gives the song a different quality rhythmically, and one of Denson’s best sax solos in the middle of this one sets it apart. “Millvale, PA” is the only instrumental on the album, but it’s a beast. The horns create an excellent wall of sound effect when the all build up together. The interplay between the drums, bass, keys, and percussion is excellent, with each piece holding down their own spot. I could see pieces of this being stretched out nicely live, giving everyone a chance to step into the spotlight. After the ripping instrumental, “Something Sweet” is a nice transitional tune, slowing things down while still having some nice power behind it. I love how Denson can change the tempo and intensity of the music without sacrificing any sort of flow or making it feel like the band is taking a break.

The final third of the album continues at a slower pace than the rest. It works, however, since there’s so much great happening musically in the tunes. “Falling Down” is a song where you can pay attention to what each piece is doing and here how impressive it is, and how it’s even more impressive when taken all together. The drums and Denson’s flute are particularly top-notch, but it’s a song that just works so well. “Time To Pray” has a little more soul and almost a little gospel influence, not over the top but again just a nice change of pace to the funk. Again, a great riff and excellent all around work. The band starts to bring back the heavy funk with “Smart Boy,” although it doesn’t have quite the hard-hitting feel that the intro implies. A great piano solo on this one, which is a nice appearance on the album. The album closes with “Just Remembered,” a nearly 10 minute soul jam with an extended organ jam and guitar jam, excellent vocal harmonies, and a very light spacy feel.

I’ve enjoyed everything that Denson has put out, and this album is no exception. Every song is well crafted, every song has a hook and something to draw you in. Denson is an exceptional sax player, vocalist, and band leader. Every piece of the band has its place and fits in with what the rest of the band is doing. Denson has his own take on modern funk, with just enough soul, rock, and pop infused in the mix. Hope I get to check his band do these songs live sometime soon.



Summer Camp adds Round 2
Summer Camp added their second round of artists this week. New additions include Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, STS9, Chromeo, Oteil & Friends, Lotus, EOTO, and Everyone Orchestra.

Bela Fleck & The Flecktones announce 30th anniversary tour
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones will head out on the road for their 30th anniversary tour this summer. The current tour lasts from the end of May through the beginning of July.

May 30 Morrison, CO – Red Rocks Amphitheater Béla Fleck & The Flecktones: Friends & Family
May 31 Salt Lake City, UT – Red Butte Garden Amphitheater
June 1 Missoula, MT – Wilma Theatre
June 2 Garden City, ID – Revolution Center
June 3 Spokane, WA – First Interstate Center
June 4 Eugene, OR – Jaqua Concert Hall
June 6 Sacramento, CA – Crest Theatre
June 7 Oakland, CA – Fox Theater
June 8 Los Angeles, CA – Playboy Jazz Festival
June 21 Telluride, CO – Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 22 El Prado, NM – Taos Mesa Brewing
June 23 Salina, KS – The Stiefel Theatre
June 24 Oklahoma City, OK – The Tower Theatre
June 26 Apple Valley, MN – Minnesota Zoo
June 27 St. Louis, MO – Powell Hall
June 28 Cleveland, OH – Tri-C Jazz Festival
June 29 Fort Wayne, IN – Sweetwater Pavilion
June 30 Cincinnati, OH – Taft Theatre
July 1 Interlochen, MI – Kresge Auditorium

Read more:

Greensky Bluegrass announce summer tour
Greensky Bluegrass announced their full summer run. They’ll kick things off at Camp Greensky before heading out west for the start of the tour. They’ll return to the eastern half of the country in time for 4848 Festival.

June 6-8 – Camp Greensky Music Festival – Wellston, Mich.
June 21 – Telluride Bluegrass Festival – Telluride, Colo.
June 27 – Red Butte Gardens – Salt Lake City, Utah
June 28 – Kettlehouse Amphitheater – Missoula, Mont.
June 29 – Oregon Zoo Amphitheater – Portland, Ore.
June 30 – Woodland Park Zoo Amphitheater – Seattle
July 7 – High Sierra Music Festival – Quincy, Calif.
July 12-13 – 4848 Festival – Snowshoe, WV
July 17 – The Norva – Norfolk, Va.
July 18 – Greenfield Lake Amphitheater – Wilmington, NC
July 19 – Koka Booth Amphitheatre – Cary, NC
July 20 – Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre – Charlotte, NC
July 21 – Salvage Station – Asheville, NC
July 27 – The Peach Music Festival – Scranton, Penn.
Aug. 1 – MECU Pavilion – Baltimore, Md.
Aug. 2 – The Rooftop at Pier 17 – New York City
Aug. 3 – Jay Peak Resort – Jay Peak, Vt.


Suwannee Spring Reunion
March 21-24
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
Live Oak, FL
Steep Canyon Rangers, Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel Experience, John Stickley Trio

Winter Wondergrass California
March 29-31
Squaw Valley, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled by Turtles, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush Band, ALO, Fruition, Billy Strings, Jeff Austin Band, The Travelin’ McCoury’s

Bender Jamboree
April 11-14
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV
Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Billy Strings

Sweetwater 420 Festival
April 19-21
Centennial Olympic Park
Atlanta, GA
Widespread Panic, The Avett Brothers, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Rebelution, Moon Taxi, The Claypool Lennon Delirium, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, Turkuaz

May 16-18
Marvin’s Mountaintop
Masontown, WV
Pigeons Playing Ping Pong (x5), Aqueous, Litz, Mungion, Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

May 23-26
Cumberland, MD
The Del McCoury Band, The String Cheese Incident, The Travelin’ McCourys, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, The Marcus King Band, Billy Strings

Summer Camp Music Festival
May 23-26
Three Sisters Park
Chillicothe, IL
moe., Umphrey’s McGee, Big Gigantic, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Trampled by Turtles, Blues Traveler, Lotus, TAUK, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Spafford, ALO

Dark Star Jubilee
May 24-26
Legend Valley
Thornville, OH
3 nights of Dark Star Orchestra, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Leftover Salmon, Billy Strings, Dumpstaphunk, The Lil’ Smokies, Donna the Buffalo, The Nth Power

Camp Greensky
June 6-8
Wellston, MI
Greensky Bluegrass (3 nights), Del & Dawg, Stephen Marley, Billy Strings, Hiss Golden Messenger, Circles around the Sun, Ghost Light, The Rebirth Brass Band, Bombino

June 13-16
Manchester, TN
Phish, The Lumineers, The Avett Brothers, GRiZ, Nahko & Medicine for the People, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Jim James, Trampled By Turtles, The Wood Brothers, Shovels & Rope, The Record Company

Mountain Jam
June 13-16
Bethel Woods
Bethel, NY
Willie Nelson & Family, Phil Lesh & Friends, Gov’t Mule, The Avett Brothers, The Revivalists, Twiddle, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, Dispatch, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Michael Franti & Spearhead

Keller in the Caverns
June 21-23
Pelham, TN
2 Keller Williams performances as well as Pettygrass, More Than A Little, and a Grateful Gospel Brunch

Telluride Bluegrass Festival
June 20-23
Telluride, CO
Brandi Carlisle, Sam Bush Band, Jim James, Greensky Bluegrass, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon: Stories from the Living Room, Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth

Electric Forest
June 27-30
Double JJ Ranch & Resort
Rothbury, MI
3 nights of The String Cheese Incident, Bassnectar, Lettuce, The Floozies, TAUK, Spafford, Twiddle, Ghost Light, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, The Nth Power, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades

Smoky Run Music Festival
June 28-30
Butler, OH
Gov’t Mule, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Deer Tick, Son Volt, The Travelin’ McCoury’s & Jeff Austin Band present Grateful Ball, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, Rumpke Mountain Boys

July 4-6
Snow Ridge Ski Resort
Turin, NY

High Sierra
July 4-7
Quincy, CA
Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, Del McCoury Band, Jim James, St. Paul & The Broken Bones, Galactic, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, ALO, Marcus King Band

4848 Festival
July 11-13
Snowshoe Mountain
Snowshoe, WV
Greensky Bluegrass, Umphrey’s McGee, The Infamous Stringdusters, Lettuce, Railroad Earth, Marcus King Band, Billy Strings, Turkuaz, Fruition

Ride Festival
July 12-14
Telluride, CO
Widespread Panic, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Big Something

Camp Bisco
July 18-20
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA

FloydFest 19 “Journey Home”
July 24-28
Floyd, VA
Phil Lesh & The Terrapin Family Band, The String Cheese Incident, Brandi Carlile Tyler Childers, Margo Price, Fantastic Negrito, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Keller Williams’ Grateful Grace featuring Love Cannon

Peach Music Festival
July 25-28
Montage Mountain
Scranton, PA
Phil Lesh & Friends, Trey Anastasio Band, The String Cheese Incident, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, moe., Greensky Bluegrass, Lotus, Lettuce, Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, Allman Betts Band, Billy Strings

Lockn’ Festival
August 22-25
Arrington, VA
Trey Anasasio Band w/ Derek Trucks, Tedeschi Trucks Band w/ Trey Anastasio, Bob Weir & Wolf Bros. w/ Susan Tedeschi, Otiel & Friends w/ Bob Weir, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, The Revivalists, Gary Clark Jr., Old Crow Medicine Show, moe., Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Twiddle


Thanks again for stopping by. I’ll be back next week with more jam. Until then, check me out on Facebook and Twitter for up to the minute concert announcements. Until next week, Jam On!