SCAD New Alumni Concert
The Greyboy Allstars, Mayer Hawthorne, Gringo Star
Where: Forsyth Park
When: At 6 p.m. Friday, May 31
His band's namesake flew the coop years ago, but saxophonist Karl Denson has kept the Greyboy Allstars alive and flourishing.
The funk, R&B and jazz band headlines SCAD's "New Alumni Concert" May 31 in Forsyth Park, preceded by a reputation as one of the finest — and funkiest — improvisational instrumental combos in our great green land.
The San Diego-based Denson maintains a busy day planner. Along with the Greyboy Allstars, he plays with the reggae band Slightly Stoopid, and fronts Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, which has a pronounced, idiosyncratic jazz edge.
"Tiny Universe is more my thing, even though we've started to share duties in the last couple of years," he reports. "But I think the shared responsibility is the big thing with this band. With this band, it's a democracy. It leads to, I think, a narrower sound in that everybody has a consensus as to what we are trying to do."
Denson and the spotlight first became acquainted in the late '80s and early '90s, when Lenny Kravitz brought him aboard to play sax during his million-selling Let Love Rule/Mama Said period.
"I definitely consider myself a jazz guy at heart," Denson says. "I always knew I had kind of a pop sensibility, so having the Lenny Kravitz gig was that. But when I got my first record deal, I made four straight-ahead jazz records, from '92 to '96.
"But in '92 I met DJ Greyboy, and we started doing what was then called acid jazz. He kind of put the band together for his record release party. We started playing together at the end of '93 and just never stopped.
"He was never really that involved in the band farther along than a year or two. His record collection was really a source of inspiration, and from there we took our own direction. And this is where we are."
Greyboy Allstars also includes Robert Walter (keys), Elgin Park (guitar), Aaron Redfield (drums) and Chris Stillwell (bass).
"I've always had my hands in a bunch of stuff," Denson adds, "but this has definitely been the most fun thing as a player, for me."
The groove gauntlet was thrown down with the 1995 debut, West Coast Boogaloo, and has been spruced and juiced continually over the years
"I think the music's changed in relation to what's going on in the rest of the world," offers Denson. "There's still all that same stuff there, but there's also a bunch of new things that have happened in the last 20 years that influenced the band.
"When you look at the beginning of the band, it was under the banner of acid jazz. Then a few years later, acid jazz was kinda gone and it became 'jam band.' Then it became electronica, what everybody's listening to. Then you've got the alt rock/folky thing going on. I think all those things have influenced us, based on what we like. You listen to new music and you like differently because of it. It's just been a total transformation in that way, of whatever we're listening to."
And Inland Emperor, the newest Greyboy Allstars release, reflects the eclectic nature of each musician's preferences.
"For this record, I know Robert was listening to a lot of Michael Jackson," Denson explains. "So some of those tunes of his are influenced by that — he starts with a Michael Jackson beat, as opposed to a hip hop beat or a boogaloo beat. So I think we're just making a natural arc to what we are."
The Allstars' fiery improv interplay has been a big hit a jam band festivals, and that's something Denson enjoys, too. "With the members of this band, it's a lot easier for me to let go and just play," he says. "It's always fun to think 'I just want to practice and play good.' I don't have to think about what the set looks like and all that stuff. I know whatever we play is gonna kinda rock."
Whatever anybody wants to call Karl Denson's music is fine by him. At the moment he has his mitts on three vastly different bands, and he couldn't be happier.
"It's genuinely fun, and it keeps me working without having to stress about my finances," he says. "It's one of those things where, as long as you're making progress musically, it's a good thing.
"Playing in Slightly Stoopid's been really fun because it's totally something that I wouldn't have expected to be doing. But I'm learning a ton about reggae.
"I'm kind of a closet historian, so all of a sudden I'm hanging out with these guys that just want to smoke weed all day and play reggae ... but they're actually really knowledgeable about it and they're making some great music."