Karl Denson brings the funk and jazz to Mr. Smalls

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Funk and jazz saxophonist Karl Denson always looks forward to playing at Mr. Smalls in Millvale because he knows he can cook up something special.

"I'm a big fan of Mr. Smalls. I like that place a lot," he said in anticipation of his visit for the show Saturday night. "It's the house. Instead of a little backstage hole-in-the-wall to put the band in all packed in together, at Mr. Smalls we have the nice house behind us. So its very relaxing, we can kind of chill.

"We've actually gone out and bought groceries and made our own dinner for ourselves. In fact, now that you mention it, I'm going to plan ahead and do that."

Mr. Denson, 56, comes through Pittsburgh about once a year. This year, it's with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.

"I tour constantly," he said. "I've got three bands going most of the time. My band, Tiny Universe, is more of a funky soul band. And then you've got The Greyboy Allstars and that's a funky boogaloo. And I'm also playing with Slightly Stupid. And that's a straight reggae band."

A native of California, Mr. Denson started playing music in junior high. It stuck with him when he went to college.

"It kind of unfolded," he said. "I didn't set out to study music. It just kind of took over and I kept at it. One day I realized, 'I think I want to make a record now.' It happened. And 20 records later, this is where we're at."

A former member of Lenny Kravitz's band, he's been touring like this for more than 25 years.

"We have markets that we're stronger in and markets that we're weaker in," he said. "We haven't been really touring like this for a while. We haven't been anywhere besides our major markets for the last year and a half.

"This tour, we're hitting places that we don't normally play. So this will be fun."

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe is a six-piece group, working in a new drummer. The guitar player has been with him a couple of years.

"Everybody else has been here close to 10 years or more," he said.

But that doesn't mean the music hasn't changed in a decade. It's always evolving.

"It's that natural progression of any artist," Mr. Denson said. "Hopefully, your first record is your worst record. You're growing as a band. You learn each other's tendencies and create as a unit.

"Rather than telling them, 'Ah, this is the way we did this and this is the way we did that,' I tend to not let them listen to a lot of the old stuff and let them have their own take on the music. I encourage them to start with a blank canvas. I hate it when the songs stay the same."

Fans of his music turn out because they never know what they're going to get.

"People know what we do," he said. "I kind of look at it like Miles. Miles Davis always told his guys, 'I want you up here practicing. I want you making mistakes and trying new stuff.'

"My crowd expects whatever I throw at them. They know it's a work in progress. It's not a pop audience. They're not listening to one definitive version and hearing that version all the time. They're listening to a live version, so they know that what we do changes from day to day.

"We've been around long enough. It's a really fun environment and we've managed to attract a nice kid contingent. I'm always amazed that we have these 20-year-olds who haven't been old enough to go to a show and now they are and there they are in the crowd, right up front looking and listening."

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe plays an all-ages show at 9 p.m. Saturday at Mr. Smalls Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., in Millvale. Sharing the bill is The Mike Dillon Band. Cover is $25.

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