By Kira Grunenberg | Published July 2019
Jazz, funk and rock are at the root of Karl Denson’s work, whether it was as a member of The Greyboy Allstars, during tours with the Rolling Stones or helming his Tiny Universe ensemble. And on Gnomes And Badgers the reedist hits on a perfect balance.
“What If You Knew”—hosting everything from Chris Littlefield’s trumpet to David Veith’s wah-distorted keys, Mike Dillon’s percussive cornucopia and Denson’s emphatic lead vocals—is a master class in scrupulous composing, performing and mixing. Once the parts come together, the dense combination of sounds might be contrasted with boldly ornate, but smartly designed, architecture: crowded, yet comprehensible.
Conversely, when “Time To Pray” leaves space for more individual spotlights, the Tiny Universe’s edginess shines through, as DJ Williams’ definitively rock-toned guitar solo contrasts with Denson’s improvisatory flute solo, a turn that retains a foot in the modern-jazz world.
The delicate political territories that Denson writes about, and the style-enhanced engine of this lineup make an intriguing pair. One casts the shadow of sadness and frustration, while the other bathes listeners in a musically gratifying light.
Gnomes And Badgers: What If You Knew; Gossip; Change My Way; I’m Your Biggest Fan; Can We Trade?; Millvale, PA; Something Sweet; Falling Down; Time To Pray; Smart Boy; Just Remembered. (60:21)
Personnel: Karl Denson, saxophone, flute, percussion, vocals; DJ Williams, Anders Osborne (3, 6), Lukas Nelson (7), guitar; Seth Freeman, guitar, lap steel guitar; Zak Najor, Alan Evans (3, 6), drums; Chris Stillwell, bass; David Veith, Ivan Neville (3, 6), keyboards; Chris Littlefield, trumpet; Chuck Leavell, piano (10); Adrian Quesaoa (3), guitar, piano; The Brownout Horns (6, 10); Andy Geib, trombone (5); Gabe Wolf, trumpet (5); Matthew “Sweet Lou” Holmes, percussion (6); Greg Izor, harmonica (6); Rebecca Jade, Sonya Moore, Elvert Waltower, Jervae Anthony, vocals.