Saxophonist Karl Denson on Playing for Rolling Stones: "It's Not Something You Get Used To"

Photo by Robbie Jeffers
Karl Denson is bringing his funky, jazz sax to South Florida in August, both with the Rolling Stones and with Karl Denson's Tiny Universe.
Karl Denson doesn’t answer blocked numbers.

So, when the saxophone player’s phone rang one day in 2014, he didn’t pick up. But after four calls, he thought it might be important. It was.

Lenny Kravitz, for whom Denson played saxophone from 1986 to 1993, was calling to tell him about a new gig he might want to check out. A friend of Kravitz’s had mentioned over dinner that he might need someone.

“My first response was I don’t really need a gig. I’m doing plenty, and I’m kind of home now, and I’m working on something, and I’m kind of burnt out from being on the road,” Denson says. “He’s like, ‘I think you might want to take this one.’”

The gig was certainly something to consider after Denson learned that Kravitz had left out one small detail... the friend to whom he was referring was Mick Jagger, and the gig was with the Rolling Stones.

“How do you respond to that?” Denson says, laughing.

He sent Mick Jagger samples of his work with Kravitz, along with songs from his own band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, which included a cover of the Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Two weeks later he was onstage Down Under as the new tenor sax player for the Rolling Stones.

“That week, I literally thought I was going to die in a car accident,” Denson says. “I thought there was no way I was going to make it to Australia and be playing with the Rolling Stones. And here we are five years later.”

Denson and the Stones will play the sold-out Hard Rock Stadium in Miami on Aug. 31, and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe will play two intimate nights at The Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton on Aug. 29 and 30.

While playing with the Stones is exciting and surreal every night, Denson says he looks forward to headlining his own shows at the Funky Biscuit in support of his newest album, the funky, soulful Gnomes and Badgers.

“The gnomes and badgers thing is really about the microcosm of us as people,” he says about using dichotomous characters to explore ideologies on both sides of the political aisle. "The gnomes are the ones that you expect to be making intelligent choices, but they’re really not using critical thinking, and the badgers tend to be so caring, but they can also be savage if you don’t agree with them."

In what Denson refers to as his "idyllic world,” the gnomes and badgers ultimately come together, on the album at least, by treating one another with respect and civility.

“I grew up in church, I’m a believer and I was raised on that doctrine and those rules,” he says of his frustration with the hypocrisy of many of today’s religious political leaders. “Now I see everybody just breaking them and acting like it’s all right to not be compassionate and not have any charity.”

It was the judgmental nature of the non-denominational congregation he grew up with in Santa Ana, California, that drove him away from the church. “We thought everybody was wrong except for us,” he says.

Denson says he never discusses politics with any of the Stones, and that with the exception of tour kick-off and wrap parties, the band tends to be regimented and professional. “I missed the real party years,” he says. “It’s pretty mellow now compared to what it was.”

Even so, Denson calls Keith Richards “the ultimate rock guy” and remembers asking him one night before a show in London what he missed most about the area since moving to the U.S.

“He goes, ‘You know, when I was a kid, this whole town smelled like coal oil and piss. I miss that,’” Denson says about Richards, laughing. “That’s rock and roll right there.”

In addition to singing and playing sax, flute, and piano, Denson says he has recently taken up guitar. Nevertheless, he’s overly modest when asked what the Stones might say he brings to the table.

“Absolutely nothing!” he says. “They’re the fricking Rolling Stones ... They don’t really have a period where they sucked. They’ve got like 3-4 popular tunes on every single record. That’s impossible. Who does that? Prince doesn’t even have a memorable song on every single record.”

That self-effacing attitude is one Denson has carried throughout his career. Despite his successes, he distinctly remembers being a shy kid who relied on Joni Mitchell songs to help him through years of painful heartbreaks.

“I used to have this recurring dream that Tom Scott (Mitchell’s sax player) would call me and say, ‘Karl, I can’t make Joni’s gig tonight, could you cover for me?’ And I would go to the venue and I’d be onstage getting my horns together and ... there would be no musicians on stage, and then they’d announce, ‘Ladies and gentleman, Joni Mitchell.’ And they would open the curtains and I would wake up,” he says.

So, when the elevator doors opened one summer night in 1989 in New York City and Denson unexpectedly found himself face-to-face with Joni Mitchell, he knew his chance had finally come: He would tell her about his dreams, how much her music meant to him, how much he wanted to work with her.

“I just frickin’ froze,” he says, laughing, but still clearly frustrated. “I was like a deer in the headlights. Could not get a word out. I said hi. That was it. Not I’m a big fan of your music, nothing. Just hi.”

While a Denson-Mitchell collaboration is probably not on the horizon, Denson, at 62, says he is living his dreams. He’s writing a sci-fi screenplay and hopes to have another album out by year's end.

And then there’s the Stones thing – something he still has trouble wrapping his head around.

“Pretty much the same thing goes through my mind every night,” he says. “I’m on stage with the Stones. You know, it’s not something you get used to.”

Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. 8 p.m. Thursday, August 29, and 8 p.m. Friday, August 30, at the Funky Biscuit, 303 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton; 561-395-2929; Tickets cost $40 to $60 via

Rolling Stones. 8 p.m. Saturday, August 31, at Hard Rock Stadium, 347 Don Shula Dr., Miami Gardens; 305-943-6678; Tickets cost $44.50 to $494.50 via