It’s been said that the formula for success is Opportunity + Preparation = Triumph. Or, in layman’s terms, luck plus work equals sold-out shows with screaming fans, and food platters with fancy hors d’oeuvres in the green room.
That formula, elementary though it may be, seems to be working for Karl Denson. Take, for instance, what is probably the crowning moment of Denson’s career to date — that phone call from Lenny Kravitz:
“I met Lenny in 1988, during a session for this guy named Tony LeMans,” Denson explains during our phone interview. “A year later, he called and asked me do the solo on ‘Let Love Rule.'”
That, I submit, was the Opportunity.
Kravitz liked the solo so much he asked Denson to play on the entire Let Love Rule CD (Virgin, 1989), and then invited him on tour. That led to work on Mama Said (Virgin, 1991) and Are You Gonna Go My Way? (Virgin, 1993), with subsequent tours for each: the Preparation.
Though Are You Gonna Go My Way? signalled Kravitz’s farewell to horns (and, therefore, to Denson) the door had been opened — the saxophonist merely needed to walk through it.
“I started my jazz recording career in ’92,” he recalls. “It conflicted with Lenny’s gigs. I wasn’t playing that much saxophone with Lenny … so I left and took my chances.”
In 1994, a stylish San Diego MC named DJ Greyboy joined forces with a groove band called the Allstars, creating one of the important unions in acid-jazz history: the Greyboy Allstars. The group caught — and shaped — the American acid-jazz wave of the ’90s, quickly becoming one of the biggest-drawing club and festival acts in the country.
In the foreground of that group was our man of the hour, a hip and talented saxophonist, flutist and singer. To put it in a sentence: He’s the kind of horn player who closes his eyes when he blows. What’s more, Denson is a man on an ever-changing mission. Today, his main goal is getting radio play. His odds are good: Not only does Denson employ The Formula, but he has the ability to adapt his music to current trends, without (and this is key) abandoning the genres that are dear to him.
“We were lucky enough to create a buzz with the Allstars right when dance music shifted in our direction,” he observes. “Then it shifted back towards mainstream R&B and hip-hop … and kind of left us in the lurch. [So] we made a crossover into the hippie market.”
Therein lies Denson’s talent. He understands music history and trends and readily applies what he knows to his own career. Translation? He can cross over, when the crossing’s good …
“Acid jazz is a late-’80s blend of DJs spinning tracks with a soloist or horn section playing over it,” he explained to the host of KPBS’ The Lounge. “When they finally ran out of James Brown, Parliament, rock ‘n’ roll and funk tunes to sample, they turned to jazz.”
By ’97, the Greyboy Allstars had begun to grow apart. “The band stopped creating freely,” says Denson. “So we took some time off. But the time off became longer and longer, until I just started my own thing.”
Denson’s “own thing,” an independently released CD named after his current band, is now in jazz bins across the country — and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe is currently on a national tour supporting this steamy debut effort.
Denson has already shown that he can follow the formula. But now that he’s gotten the music world’s attention, how will he parlay that into the fancy hors d’oeuvres plate?
“Attack the record companies,” is his plan. “Make ourselves more visible. … Push for a more vocal, mainstream appeal. I want to get on the radio. I think I write good enough tunes. I want a nice, fat budget so I can relax and make a record slowly, and make it right.”