By Dave Pehling

ST. HELENA (CBS SF) — One of the most popular jazz-funk bands to regularly visit the Bay Area, saxophonist Karl Denson and his Tiny Universe bring potent grooves to the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena for three shows starting Friday evening.

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Denson had already established himself as a formidable player by the early ’90s thanks to his work with rocker Lenny Kravitz and as a solo jazz artist when the Greyboy Allstars formed in 1994. Coming together at the behest of their namesake San Diego-based acid jazz/funk producer DJ Greyboy to play the record release party for his Ubiquity Records debut Freestylin’ (Denson had played on the album), the quintet drew on the creme of the Southern California city’s young soul-jazz players. In addition to de facto leader Denson, the group featured keyboardist Robert Walter, guitarist Michael Andrews (playing under his stage name Elgin Park), bassist Chris Stillwell and drummer Zak Najor.

Quickly establishing a local following with their hard-grooving take on the ’60s and ’70s sounds of such boogaloo legends as Hammond B-3 maestros Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Brother Jack McDuff as well as the inevitable influence of funk godfather James Brown, the band began playing regular gigs up and down the West Coast. The Greyboy Allstars received a particularly warm embrace in San Francisco, where the group frequently sold out and sweaty dance parties at popular Mission club the Elbo Room.

The Allstars made their proper recorded debut in 1995 with West Coast Boogaloo, an energetic effort for Greyboy Records that featured a guest appearance by legendary James Brown bandleader and funk trombone great Fred Wesley. The group would continue to tour relentlessly, graduating to larger venues and becoming a festival favorite with their powerhouse live sets. After their follow-up sophomore album A Town Called Earth and a subsequent live concert document, the Allstars would take a break, allowing the individual members to pursue solo careers and like-minded band projects.

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In addition to recording several albums as a leader, the musician would begin fronting his own band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, in 1998. Mining a similar vein of funky, rock-tinged jazz that showcased his muscular tenor and melodic flute as well as a soulful singing voice, KDTU would become the saxophonist’s main touring band. The group would release several albums since their 2002 studio debut The Bridge, including their most recent effort, 2014’s New Ammo that features covers of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes and “Sure Shot” by the Beastie Boys.

While Denson has stayed busy with other commitments as the featured horn player with the Rolling Stones since the passing of their longtime saxophonist Bobby Keys, he and the Tiny Universe still make regular visits to the Bay Area, frequently playing tribute to the likes of the Beasties and Run DMC (with regular collaborators Slightly Stoopid), Prince and Aretha Franklin. In 2019, Denson and his band celebrated the release of Gnomes & Badgers, their first new album in over five years.

The effort brings some serious guitar heat echoing classic Funkadelic on tracks like “Change My Way” and a sinuous cover of the Cyril Neville gem “Gossip.” While Denson reunited with the Greyboy Allstars to record and release Como Del Allstars during the COVID shutdown last year, fans will be thrilled to see him perform with the Tiny Universe at these three post-reopening shows presented by Blue Note Napa at the Charles Krug Estate Winery in St. Helena this weekend. Information on tickets and post-COVID safety protocols are available at the Blue Note Napa website.

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Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Friday-Saturday, June 18-19, 8:30 p.m. (additional 5:30 p.m. show Sat.) $35
Charles Krug Winery