At a time when jazz labels are trimming rosters and favoring younger musicians playing older styles of music, saxophonist Karl Denson is bucking the trend. His recently released CD on the Blue Note label, "Dance Lesson No. 2," blends jazz with hip-hop and R&B;, his scintillating sax and flute solos framed in backbeat, chockablock guitar riffs, organ vamps and turntable scratch.
"This was not the album I was expecting to take to Blue Note," Denson said by phone from San Diego, where he is based. "We'd already recorded it and were shopping it around. My manager knew people at Blue Note, took it to them, and they went for it."
The disc features the saxophonist and such notables as R&B; studio guitarist Melvin Sparks, bassist Chris Wood from Medeski, Martin and Wood, Black Rock Coalition turntable whiz DJ Logic, eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and keyboardist Leon Spencer Jr.
"The grooves [in 'Dance Lesson No. 2'] are very flat, unchanging like a James Brown groove. I have a tendency to overwrite, and I just wanted the grooves to sit there so I could play to them. The next album will be a little more evolved."
Denson has experience playing all types of jazz and has paid dues as a pop performer. The 44-year-old musician grew up in Santa Ana and later lived in Lake Forest. He spent a good portion of the '80s and '90s playing around Orange County, making frequent appearances at the Studio Cafes in Balboa and Corona del Mar and at the now defunct Randell's in Santa Ana.
He picked up the sax around age 12, about the same time that his older brother turned him on to the jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He was also into R&B; of the late 1960s and early '70s: the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, James Brown, the Ohio Players.
At Fullerton College and later Cal State Long Beach, Denson played free jazz, which he said, "has enabled me to play over grooves and not get too staid. I'm not out there to be some kind of smooth jazz player."
Denson was sucked into the pop world in 1988 when rocker Lenny Kravitz heard him at a recording session and enlisted him for his "Let Love Rule" album. He spent five years touring with Kravitz and is also heard on Kravitz's "Mama Said" CD. (Kravitz sat in with Denson's band earlier this year at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.)
While traveling with Kravitz in Europe, Denson was heard by executives at the German jazz label Minor Music. They hired him to record a series of straight-ahead jazz albums. Though the label is now defunct, the discs, most with musicians including trumpeter Ron Stout, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Kevin Tullius, have been made available again at http://karldenson.com.
"It was really hard at that time to be a jazz musician because of the thing with the young lions," Denson said. "It was all about technique, and I don't think any of them were making good records, even though they were great players. But the record companies were judging people on technical prowess as opposed to their artistry."
One reason record companies concentrated on younger artists was to enlist a younger audience. But, Denson said, they were going about it in the wrong way.
"Playing straight-ahead rooms in the late '80s and early '90s, I noticed that everyone in the audience was over 40. I thought, 'This has got to change.' In 20 years there won't be anybody left to come out to the shows."
To find his audience, Denson went back to the dance roots of jazz. "I've always believed that jazz started as dance music," he explained. "It was music for youth."
Acid Jazz Influence
Is Evident on New Album
In 1994, Denson hooked up with DJ Greyboy to form the Greyboy Allstars, one of the acid jazz movement's more popular and enduring ensembles. It's no coincidence that the influence of his Greyboy association can be heard on the new disc.
"Greyboy was really a great learning experience for me," Denson said, "a nice bridge between my straight-ahead period and my soul-jazz period. The musicians turned out to be really talented beyond what I expected, guys who had great taste and good ideas and could always guide the music in the right direction."
His desire to make his music attractive to a young audience explains his use of dance rhythms and hip-hop elements.
"Hip-hop is for me kind of like the same thing that jazz was 50 or 60 years ago," Denson said. "It was something being created in the inner city by young black kids. It was the same thing when guys like Charlie Parker and Don Byas were learning how to play bebop.
"The relation between jazz and hip-hop really coalesced when hip-hop artists started sampling jazz records, when A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets started using jazz music and gave credit to the musicians in their liner notes. Kids went out to buy those records and started listening to jazz."
Denson's desire to make his music accessible isn't something new. "When I think back to my straight-ahead days, my playing was pretty groovy even then."
His touring band, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, including drummer Eric Bolivar, trumpeter Andy Cleaves, guitarist Brian Jordan and keyboardist David Veith, promises more than the usual groove tunes. "It will be interesting to see what people think of my music as it evolves. I'll be doing some more involved things on the next album. But it will still be people-oriented."
* Karl Denson's Tiny Universe plays the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano; Saturday, 8 p.m. Family Tree and Bus open. $15. (949) 496-8927.