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Catching up with Karl Denson

The first time I saw Karl Denson's Tiny Universe was at the 9:30 Club in 2001 or 2002. I remember immediately thinking two things: 1) Man, saxophonist/flutist Denson can really play and 2) Denson has some massive muscles.

Denson was the sax man for rocker Lenny Kravitz, and has had side gigs with the Greyboy Allstars and the Tiny Universe for years.

I caught up with Denson to talk about his new album "Brother's Keeper," which comes out Sept. 15, and, of course, his muscles.

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Tomorrow, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe will perform as part of Sonar's Traffic Jam. More info on the outdoor festival here.

What can you tell me about "Brother's Keeper?"

That record's been a long time coming for me. My last tiny universe record was in 2004 when we put out an EP. So I've been doing a lot of writing. There's been a lot of stuff written and thrown away and written and thrown away. I took a handful of the stuff that actually made it over the last few years and some new ideas that came about based on what's going on right now in my life.

What's going on right now in your life?

Raising kids, watching the world change. Hopefully maturing a bit myself. And seeing a lot to do with the music industry. I've gone through my period of not knowing what I want to do. I'm back on my own track, I believe. ...

What do you want to do?

I want to make good music. I want to make what I believe as opposed to what I think other people might like. There's times when you can lose your way.

To me, the songs on your 2002 album "The Bridge" seem to be inspired by '70s grooves. "Brother's Keeper" seems to go back a little further. It feels like it's got some of the punch and energy of the '60s.

You're exactly right. The idea of making "Brother's Keeper" was to make a new soul record -- a Motown soul record, from my point of view.

Why did you want to make a record with that feel?

The biggest thing I like about those records is the production value. With the sound of Philadelphia or Motown, you had more layers of people involved. You had a rhythm arranger, a songwriter, horn arrangers, string arrangers. It had more depth. I really spent a lot of time writing the songs and spent time with other people who helped me write the songs. It has a little more humanity in it.

Who were some of those people?

David Veith, my keyboard player in my band, was very involved. I wrote the record and I had him re-write it. Then Jon Foreman, the lead singer from Switchfoot, co-wrote three songs on it. Then I had some of my horn player friends and some of the guys from Daptone Records do some of the horn arranging. And then Henry Hirsch was involved as an engineer for the session. He worked with Lenny Kravitz for years and years. He recorded and helped produce the record.

As a musician, do you have a different relationship with the saxophone than you do with the flute?

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Yes. I'm a much better saxophone player than a flute player. I have a lot more control of the saxophone. But I enjoy playing the flute more, because of the sound of it. When it's really working, on stage when the sound is good and I'm playing my flute, it's really the coolest thing in the world. The saxophone is cool and I love it, but the flute's got a special place for me right now. Before I die I want to get to the point where I've somewhat mastered the instrument.

I think one of my first impressions of seeing you live was just how ripped you were. The flute almost looked like a toothbrush in your hands. Do you still work out that much?

The funniest part of that is, everybody thinks I'm a weightlifter, but I've never lifted weights in my life. It's my dad. My dad was built just like me. It's completely hereditary. I've got a daughter who has forearms and calves.

Really?

Yeah. I have guys walk up to me all the time and go, 'Dude, I know that's genetic. Gimme two years and you could be Mr. America.' They get all psyched up. But I've never lifted weights. I do a mixture of Tai Chi and swimming. I try to swim a mile every couple days.

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