Gotta be funky
Saxophonist Karl Denson discusses the crossbreeding of jazz and hip-hop
Early in his career, Karl Denson started on a path that would seemingly have put him in the good graces of jazz purists. By his college years he had learned bebop, and a short time later he began to explore free jazz. In the early ‘90s, he formed acoustic combos that played straight-ahead jazz in California clubs.
But listen to Denson today, and it’s clear that he has branched well beyond traditional jazz and is now deeply immersed in exploring a sound that is not confined by any purist definition of what is acceptable as jazz.
With his group, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Denson is putting his own groove on jazz by liberally integrating dance beats, hip-hop and even scratching into his sound.
“I think there’s a little bit of accessibility missing in jazz right now,” he said. “My answer to that [accusations that he’s dumbing down jazz] would probably be, ‘Yeah, well, I kind of did that on purpose because first of all, I like dancing.”
Denson boosts the accessibility factor by showing a talent for melody that is sometimes lacking in jazz. Not only does Denson’s saxophone and flute playing often give the songs a strong melodic anchor, even the solos by session players he used on the latest CD (guitarists Melvin Sparks and Charlie Hunter and organists Leon Spencer Jr. and Ron Levy) generally have a tuneful quality.
For Denson, who first gained widespread exposure as saxophonist on rock star Lenny Kravitz’s hit albums Let Love Rule and Mama Said, the move beyond traditional azz took hold in the early ‘90s, when he met DJ Greyboy. The two collaborated on the 1993 single, “Unwind Your Mind,” that became a major club hit and then did the album Freestylin, which remains one of the pivotal albums in acid jazz history.
The popularity of that album led Denson to form the Greyboy Allstars, a group whose blend of funk, jazz, boogaloo and groove earned critical raves and helped the band build a strong following among indie-rock and hippie band fans over the course of two albums.
But feeling their inspiration had peaked out, the Greyboy Allstars disbanded in 1998, and Denson formed his Tiny Universe band.
As with the Allstars, Denson has found an audience on the jam band scene with his Tiny Universe. In fact, Denson said he has purposely moved away from courting a jazz audience, in part because he wants to reach a larger, more open-minded fan base.
“Your traditional jazz audience is a bit staid. They would really like to hear you play a smattering of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and this old music that’s not my music. Not that I don’t love it. I totally grew up on it. But in order for me to do what I am supposed to do as far as being a jazz musician, I have to create my own music. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing, not limiting myself.”
One specific area that Denson is exploring is how to use hip-hop within a jazz and funk setting. And while he is certainly not alone, Denson realizes that some jazz fans and musicians believe the two genres should not mix. He noted that a new interview with Stanley Clarke in Jazz Times found Clarke offering an outspoken view.
“He was really coming down on rap, about the way that jazz artists have kind of starting to embrace hip-hop as the new jazz in terms of it being the new black music,” Denson said. “And he was ripping it to shreds. I thought, ‘Man, that’s really kind of an ignorant summation of hip-hop,’ because it seemed like all he could see was the cursing, the obscenity. If you really listen to it, the whole history of hip-hop comes from the struggle. It’s not just about commercialism. It’s about there’s a struggle going on. The same struggle that created jazz was going on in the inner cities when hip-hop was invented. And we’re 20 years into it now, and there’s a super-rich history.
“It’s unfortunate to miss that and not understand how dope [the rhythms] from Wu Tang Clan are or some of the new stuff like Mystikal, how rhythmically what they’re doing is really inventive," Denson said. "And then you’ve got bands like Tribe Called Quest that were doing really great things harmonically. So I find that the jazz guys kind of get stuck in this rut, and I don’t think the new music is going to come out of them. I think it’s going to come out of more urban elements that eventually embrace jazz, as opposed to jazz guys embracing urban elements."