Karl Denson knows exactly what he wants to do and exactly how to get it done, both in his musical and his business endeavors. He made that perfectly clear early in the conversation in a firm but friendly manner that continued throughout the dialogue.
The practical and no-nonsense tone of his response is right in keeping with his most recent activities, in which he has circled back to roots while simultaneously charting a new course for himself as a musician and entrepreneur: the two roles, often mutually exclusive, are in Denson's mind, inextricably intertwined.
So it is that hot on the heels of a reunion of The Greyboy Allstars, the nouveau funk band Denson helped found in 1995, he exhumed the concept of an all-instrumental jazz trio, recording with them and touring in almost equally short order to the Greyboy project early in 2007. Yet KD3 isn't an all-freewheeling improvisational exercise anymore than is Bobby Ace Records: Denson's independent record label enterprise represents a means to record and distribute his own projects and those of like-minded musicians and keep it-the music and the mercenary aspects of the work-moving in as direct a fashion as possible straight to the audience.
The Karl Denson Trio takes the stage with a set list of tunes that vary little from night to night except in the spontaneity of the moment, as Denson calls it. Much as he chose to help educate a funk drummer (Jake Najor) to jam rather than the other way round, Denson maintains the ambition to reach more of the mainstream by utilizing a more iconoclastic approach. As with the interlude on the phone with Doug Collette, so far so good.
Doug Collette: I was anxious to talk to you, having gotten a copy of the new album (Lunar Orbit) with the Trio, and I have to tell you first of all how much I've been enjoying it. You must be pretty proud of it.
Karl Denson: I am, man! I haven't been this proud of something I've done in quite a while.
DC: Well, it's got a great vibe to it. You know, the more that I listened to it, the more I enjoyed it, but more so because I seemed to sense - and tell me if I'm off the mark here - a real atmosphere similar to the great Blue Note ensemble recordings of the '50s, as well as some stuff from the '70s, like the Greyboy Allstars thing. It just has a great, great mood to it.
KD: Yeah, I was really kind of stretching myself up with this record, in terms of trying to…I'm always trying to mix things, you know like I…I…I like fruit punch. (laughter) You know?
DC: Yup, I know what you mean!
KD: And so I'm always trying to mix things up, especially as a jazz guy, you know, trying to get enough out of the old elements that I love and enough out of the new elements that I love. And I'm trying to always push the form forward. With this record, I felt like I really got something. I really got kind of a formula that I'm looking forward to expanding on in the future.
DC: Well, I can certainly appreciate that fact because there seems to be plenty of room for you to expand on this, no matter who you're playing with. Can you tell me exactly who's gonna be in the Trio or is in the Trio right now, as you continue on tour?
KD: Anthony Smith is the organist/keyboard player. He's on the record also and he plays about half the tunes. And then Jake Najor, the drummer who plays half the tunes on the record, is on tour with us.
DC: Great.
KD: And it's been really great, man. I went from kind of trying a more traditional jazz drummer and teaching him how to play funk, and I ended up going back to a funk drummer and teaching him how to play jazz, which is working out much more to my liking.
DC: Let's talk a minute about how you approach playing onstage. And I like to ask this question of virtually every musician I talk to because I've been getting some surprising and very diverse answers. How tightly do you comprise a set list before you go onstage, if you have one at all?
KD: Well, it's pretty rigid. I mean, we used to go on the stage back in the day with the Greyboy Allstars and just call tunes, but with this band now, kind of with the way the music's gone, you know, I used to do that back a year ago when we first started the band, but now it's kind of become more of like, really trying to program the music and really trying to make it hit as hard as the record hits. So we've kind of worked our way up to where now we have a two-hour show that's pretty consistent as far as what tunes we play in which place. And then my next move is to write another five or six tunes to kind of flesh the whole thing out, so I can move things around.
DC: Do you have specific tunes that are in the repertoire right now that you and the band have agreed are right for stretching out on? Or do you let the tunes pretty much flow as they go onstage and stretch them out as the inspiration hits you?
KD: We have pretty much… There's like three or four tunes that we really stretch out on.That like have open forms. But I've really tried to invest into writing real forms and kind of more from a traditional standpoint. You know like, I like those records. I like those old Charlie Parker records that are three-minute songs, you know, or two-and-a-half-minute songs. I like the idea of sticking to structure. My early jazz time was really spent playing a lot of avant garde free stuff, you know, so I've kind of been there, done that. And now, I really like form.
DC: Well, I can really appreciate that. The first time I ever saw you play live was when you were on tour with Gov't Mule a couple years ago, and you guys came up to Vermont, and it was interesting to hear the sound of a horn in that group. And it prompts me to ask, do you change how you play depending on the group that you're playing with? I mean do you do that consciously? Or does it change at all?