Karl Denson expands his Tiny Universe at 9:30 Club

January 30
Karl Denson is the master of Tiny Universe, his high-energy jam band. (Alicia J. Rose)
Karl Denson is the master of Tiny Universe, his high-energy jam band. (Alicia J. Rose)

Never get complacent. Always keep growing.

That’s the mantra saxophonist Karl Denson has embodied throughout his life — going all the way back to when he first picked up the instrument at age 12.

“I looked at it from a real simple standpoint,” Denson says. “[I told myself] in a year, I am going to be better than I am now, and in five years I am going to be even better.”

Denson, 57, got his big break in 1989 when he laid down some choice sax solos on Lenny Kravitz’s debut album, “Let Love Rule.” He spent the next five years on the road with Kravitz, then moved on to work across genres with artists as varied as jazz trombonist Fred Wesley, rock-reggae band Slightly Stoopid and classic rocker Steve Winwood.

And that’s on top of his solo albums and the bands he leads: groove-minded ensemble The Greyboy Allstars, acid jazz group The Karl Denson Trio and his main project, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.

Denson has continued to find new ways to meld rock, jazz, hip-hop and funk. With Tiny Universe, his high-energy jam band, the sounds are vivacious and fun — the kind of music that makes you get up and dance, Denson says.

Tiny Universe is touring behind its latest album, “New Ammo,” which drops on Tuesday. On “My Baby,” a six-minute jam with funky keyboards and groovy horns and percussion, Denson shares vocals with Nicki Bluhm of The Gramblers. The track climaxes with a wild sax solo by Denson.

“New Ammo” gives non-fans some familiar entry points into Tiny Universe, with covers of the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot” and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

Tiny Universe’s first album in more than four years is also the first since guitarist D.J. Williams and drummer Max MacVeety joined the band. While Denson is still unquestionably the leader of the group, playing sax and flute and handling lead vocals, he says this album has more of a whole “band sound and identity.” Williams, keyboardist David Veith and bassist Chris Stillwell all get songwriting credits as well.

“My first 10 records were really about what I had to say and me sitting down and actually composing and doing the whole process,” he says. “This [new] record is different. … The guys really have had their own input in how this record came to be.”

The other members of the group have adopted Denson’s dedication to growth, spending time away from each other to practice their instruments so that they’re even stronger musicians when they reunite, Denson says.

“I grew up listening to jazz, and what jazz is all about is … spending our time — like a monk — doing something really good,” Denson says. “It gets to be more fun making music together because we’re getting better.”

9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Fri., 8 p.m., $25; 202-265-0930. (U Street)

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