Story and photos by Matt SchwenkeStepping aside, briefly, from his funk-heavy Tiny Universe, Karl Denson has gone back to his jazz roots with his latest project, the Karl Denson Trio, and is kicking out sounds more akin to his earlier work in the West coast-based Greyboy Allstars. No worse for wear, Denson has continually proved his versatility throughout his career-- recording with artists as diverse as The Blind Boys of Alabama, Jack Dejohnette, Guster, and Dave Holland-- and the show at Shank Hall was no exception.
Shuffling in a little late, Denson quickly warmed up his chops and provided respite from the Milwaukee cold with alto ablaze on "Shorter Path"-- a tune written for Wayne Shorter and in which Denson's hi-energy tone was unmistakably clear. With no back seat to hide in with a trio, drummer Brady Sanders and organist Anthony Smith were called upon often, had plenty to say with interesting phrasings and moody solos and provided expansive depths for a trio. In a tune with a solid, slowed-down rhythm and pulsing organ, Denson delivered a feathery touch on alto before letting Sanders and Smith carry the song out while he added some percussion. Afterwards, Denson remarked jokingly, "That tune is called 'Black Chocolate,' which was inspired by Anthony. (laughs) He's the blackest man in here, as evidenced by that organ solo." All joking aside, Denson and company heated up a seriously tight groove in "The Plain Truth" that seemed to light a funk fire under Denson as his tenor screamed wildly. Taking it back down a notch, Denson opened the next tune with only his sax gently whispering as he waded in some mysterious waters. As the organ and drums gradually joined, the band went way out with well-spaced jams and solos.
Other notables from the evening included Denson joining Smith on organ in the encore and adding some Christmas cheer by teasing "My Favorite Things," as well as the Wurlitzer whirling and drums sizzling in "I Understand," which Denson prefaced, "... as in I get it. I'm with it. I'm on it. I'm all over it." And with his Trio kicking out thoughtful jazz, his Tiny Universe fixing to release another album and the Greyboy Allstars set to release their first album since 1995 and end a six-year-long touring hiatus later this year, Denson certainly gets it, is with it, is on it and is all over it.
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