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Brother's Keeper

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Album Review

Karl Denson's Brother's Keeper is his initial Shanachie offering and revives his longstanding Tiny Universe outfit that went on recording hiatus in 2004. 2007 saw the release of the Karl Denson Trio's killer Lunar Orbit with just his saxophone, a Hammond B-3, and drums. The set offered a new sonic take on that classic jazz sound. Brother's Keeper, by contrast, features a full septet (with MeShell Ndégeocello on electric bass) augmented by a slew of guest musicians who include an expanded horn section and strings. The sound here is different than past Tiny Universe offerings. It's a very roots-oriented sound that, while not exactly enveloping the back-to-basics of funk and jazz, folds these into a brew that also includes soul, gospel, reggae, and club jazz. Denson wrote or co-wrote 10 of the set's 11 tunes, two of them with Switchfoot's lead singer Jon Foreman (the set opener and first single "Shake It Out," and "Mighty Rebel"). Foreman penned the stellar "The Drums of War," and co-producer David Veith helped Denson on "Just Got Paid."

"Shake It Out" is the logical choice for a single because it is the closest thing to the classic sound of Tiny Universe. The sound of a Wurlitzer piano, fat bassline, tight snare and kick drum, and a handclap section that feels like it could have come right off either an old Motown record or something by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, is all funked up. It's a pure rave-up with some killer rock guitar fills that add depth and dimension. Denson's vocal is right upfront, exhorting the listener to get out on the floor. "Where It Counts" is a more skeletal, nocturnal, soul-funk number with some beautiful horns that descend from the the J.B.'s, while the backing vocals come right out of the Philly International fakebook (there is also a beautiful flute solo by Denson to boot). The hinge piece on the album, however, is the two-part title track. It offers an aural view of Denson at his compositional best. We've never heard him — on record anyway — quite like this. Complex, elastic funk meets subdued, hypnotic Afro-beat and a straight-up soul melody, turned inside out through a gospel vocal chart complete with call-and-response chorus and jazz syncopation. There's a popping, knotty bassline that drives the rest of the instruments, and a dreamy horn arrangement. The drum breaks by Zak Najor are right upfront in the mix, pulling the listener into the track's uplifting message as Denson testifies: "Yes, I'm my brother's keeper." Part two brings the blues and a tough street reggae into the gumbo as well (with strings, no less!), expanding the whole mess instrumentally. "Mighty Rebel" is jazzed-up reggae, and "Monica" is a dubby, soul-kissed love song, while "Take It Down" is a pure neo-soul ballad that evokes both the sexiness of Leroy Hutson's work and the message-oriented songs of Bobby Womack's.

Brother's Keeper is the most poignant album Denson has released to date; it's the most autobiographical and spiritual, as well. This is the work of a mature musician and thinker; and one that bears repeated listening because there is so much in this heady brew, it's impossible to take in all these killer grooves in one sitting.

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