While 2013 has been a busy year juggling multiple projects for Karl Denson, you'll find him greeting 2014 at Chicago's Park West the way he'd like to spend the most of next twelve months: with his friends in the Tiny Universe.
"I want to get back to just doing Tiny Universe," he told me in a phone interview. " We're focussed on writing right now, trying to have a genuine spurt and freshen the band up with new stuff that we do."
He'll have a lot to synthesize from his 2013 experience. His collaboration with Zach Deputy resulted in a tour celebrating the music of Ray Charles. He'll come into Chicago hot from a pair of gigs in Colorado supporting String Cheese Incident, and he's become a key supporting player in West Coast hip hop outfit Slightly Stoopid. "They let me come and go so I can do that on the side."
He draws from these influences and more for Tiny Universe's forthcoming release, New Ammo, a mixture of brand new originals and covers that span from highly recognizable to totally obscure.
"We've played most of the stuff live," Karl told me about New Ammo's eclectic mix. "Some we've actually stopped playing a while ago. But we recorded them, went back and listened to the tapes and decided they were really good."
The Beastie Boys' "Sure Shot" and White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" are sure to get dance floor moving on NYE, but Denson also draws from an unlikely source of tunes for the new release -- songs not inspired by, but actually sourced from, the soundtracks of a trio of old, underground films.
"Chris, our bass player a film buff. He also collects records. When we're on the road he buys and sells records and just loves film scores. I haven't seen the film that 'Apres Ski' comes from -- it's that obscure. But I've seen the others. One is from one of [director] Russ Myers' old titty movies [Cherry, Harry & Raquel]. The other is a biker movie starring Joe Namath and Ann-Margaret [C.C. & Company]."
On the record, those songs get an extra dose of Denson's trademark soul, jazz and funk. One song (the bluesy "My Baby") even features the vocals of fellow Californian Nicki Bluhm. Despite the mix, the final product feels like a grander statement, which according to Denson, was only somewhat by design. "When you record them you have a plan, but you see what pans out and pick your favorites."
Ammo also features an expanded horn section, and the configuration will impact the live show as well. "I've been trying to keep Daniel De La Cruz, the bari player around but I share him with Slightly Stoopid. Whenever possible he'll be there."
So NYE will be about looking ahead, but Denson and the crew will also look backwards... to 2002. He's using the holiday to attempt something he's never tried before: playing his classic album The Bridge, from front to back, in front of any audience.
"It was an idea I had -- a bolt of inspiration," he says of performing the album. "We've got new guys in the band since  so getting those tunes ready will be a little bit of a task. I think 'Rise and Shine' we haven't played since that album was released or maybe never performed."
This is the second consecutive year that Denson and company ring in the New Year in Chicago and he's wearing it like an old shoe. "We've been playing Chicago for years and years now. It's one of my favorite cities. I've kind of learned my way around so it's always nice to hang out there."
We're giving away a pair of tickets to this big NYE show. Click HERE for details.