Rolling Stones’ saxophonist leans into nerd culture

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe plays District Live New Year’s Eve

Karl Denson isn’t just that guy who plays sax for the Rolling Stones. 

He’s a vocalist, a writer, and a bona fide grade-A nerd.

When Denson isn’t on stage with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, he leads his own jazz fusion group, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, who is playing a New Year’s Eve show at District Live at Plant Riverside. Underlying Denson’s musical propensities is a love for science, superheroes and string theory.

“I’m just a nerd by nature and I grew up with Marvel,” Denson said. “I was a Marvel comic book kid, and that’s all about sci-fi. So between the superhero thing and just being a nerd—I really always loved science and math as a kid—it was inevitable.” 

For the past 20 years, between touring and recording, Denson has been working on a Sci-Fi TV series screenplay, a project he titled “Entanglement.” 

“When I’m writing, I’m just nerding out,” Denson said. “When you look at science fiction there’s always a little kernel of truth these writers are trying to get to that you see unfold over the decades.”

The project began as a superhero story, but when all paths led Denson back to science fiction, he took on a writing partner, fellow musician Matthew Burke of the Red Giant Project, to flesh out the script.

Denson says his ideas revolve around vibration, which is a key element in string theory and literally the thing that makes music happen. 

Denson’s cerebral approach to music has made him a success. 

Denson has a robust resume featuring acts the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Slightly Stoopid, the Allman Brothers Band, and of course the Rolling Stones.

He has been touring with the Rolling Stones for seven years. The band enlisted him after longtime Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys passed in Dec. 2014. Denson said watching and performing with the Rolling Stones has helped his songwriting.

“The whole thing is just kind of a fantasy world to be there,” Denson said. “For me, the amount of hits they’ve made continues to amaze me. Their depth continues to amaze me.

“I’m a writer first. First and foremost, I’m trying to write a great song. That’s really my main interest in life. Watching them from day to day, the way they approach faith in their songs and their music, the way they approach lyrics, the way they approach subject matter, it’s always an amazing thing.”

Denson’s music epitomizes the fusion genre. Sounds of all ilk weave, wander and wade through any given Denson song without the tune every losing its cohesion. He loves to blend everything he hears into his own amalgam of sonic ingenuity—sometimes to a fault.

“The music that’s out there is so amazing that it totally confuses me all the time,” Denson said. “I listen to so much music. That’s what my real problem is. I follow what’s going on and I like so much of it that it comes into my blend and it keeps changing what I’m trying to get to.”

Denson is working on a new album, a follow-up to his 2019 release, “Gnomes and Badgers,” which he said was the closest an album has come to matching his vision. He said he has always struggled translating what’s in his head into the recording. He relies on others to keep ideas clear.

“I’m not so hands on in every aspect like a Prince or a Stevie Wonder where they go in the studio and they’re constantly doing it themselves,” Denson said. “I’m trying to write the song and then go into the studio with other people to make it right. I have to have enough of a bearing on where I’m going so that I can lead correctly. That’s the challenge.”

Denson brings the same energy, passion and precision to his live shows, and he expects to start 2022 right at Plant Riverside’s District Live.

“We’re gonna be dancing a lot,” Denson said. “We’re gonna bring a little west-coast party down to Savannah.”

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. plays District Live Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. For tickets and more information visit

About The Author

Jason Birkelbach

Jason is a writer but only when he's writing. He likes margaritas, the Office, and a keen eye for sarcasm. Despite the health hazards, he is a vehement Mets fan.
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