When Chris Klaxton forms a band, you listen. When said band, Shaman Denominator, plays its debut gig at the Dance Hall in Kittery on Friday, June 15, you go. You listen. When you interview Chris Klaxton for a feature in support of said show, you do your best to listen. Chris Klaxton always has something to say, music to play, and overall, the listening is good. So, when you’re ready, buckle in, read on, and listen. And don’t miss the gig.
EDGE: Tell us about Shaman Denominator. I mean, it’s clear you don’t have enough going on…
How’d this group come together? Why’d this group come together?
Klaxton: Shaman Denominator is a trio consisting of myself on trumpet and keyboards, Scott Kiefner on bass, and John Mettam on drums.
John Mettam, while he's now been in the area for almost two years, is a somewhat recent transplant from NYC. NYC trombonist and guitarist Curtis Hasselbring (our first Ourbigband collaborating composer) told me to look out for a friend of his relocating to my area. It turns out John moved right down the street from me!
John is an incredibly versatile drummer, and overall versatile human being. He's got a hell of a resume and has played with some of the best creative musicians around: Marc Ribot, Andy Statman, Dave Tronzo, Ran Blake to name a few. John has also accompanied and produced a host of singer / songwriters and has worked as a transcriber and copyist, creating charts for the likes of Marc Ribot, T-Bone Burnett, Elton John, Leon Russell, Gregg Allman, Elvis Costello, John Mellencamp, Secret Sisters, Jeff Bridges, Neko Case, and Karen Nelson.
Scott, John, and I all get along so well on a personal level, all have an extremely wide-ranging palette of interests, and all tend to compose originals and arrange other works here and there - we decided to form a trio specific to our tastes, strengths, and deficits. Much of our music is performed chordless, with only trumpet, bass, drums. John's original compositions are extremely rhythmic and provide an excellent framework for melody and improvisation without the added texture of chordal accompaniment. To complement that side of the coin and to give my chops a break, there are a handful of tunes where I play keyboards and the chordal harmony / fuller texture takes precedence. John also introduced Scott and I to a slew of compositions by Carla Bley, Paul Bley, Ornette Coleman, Erik Satie, Bela Bartok, and more. Some of these pieces tend to be smaller melodies, somewhat fragmentary, with improvisation being either completely free, or related to form in an abstracted way. Or we perform selections more like an etude, a composition that we play through and leave without much improvisation at all.
The trio has become, for me, a whole new exercise regimen in craftsmanship and artistry. Nothing new in the world of art, but new to me - unlike the conventional presentation of standards and typical song form, our repertoire and means of communicating with one another has pushed me to improvise and conceive of melody and relationship in new ways, by abstracting smaller pieces from the whole, and using those smaller fragments as thematic material going forward. If we get our hands on any piece we like, the challenge becomes "what moments can we put parenthesis around and milk for all they're worth?!"
EDGE: What’s the common denominator?
EDGE: What’s the importance of improvisation? What do you appreciate about the power of improvisation?
Klaxton: Improvisation is a difficult word to pin down. The improvisation that happens in real time, I would argue is primarily rhythmic. Notes, scales, and chords tend to be recycled in only so many ways by an individual. The rhythmic exchange in real time is an extremely special thing to share with other people and an extremely cathartic release for the individual.
Improvisation = composition in most aspects. Sometimes we use the word "improv" to mean that we didn't have all year or all week to decide what to do - we've made compositional choices about dynamic, length, balance, relationship in a way particular to this performance or this tune.
The elements of time, dynamic, density, texture are kind of all we have to work with. This trio has helped me learn to first identify those elements, and secondly, the "improvised" aspects of creating with this trio are slowly teaching me how to assert control and notice differences between the elements each time we roll the dice. So, I guess another definition of improvisation could be that it is a method of control - experimenting with systems of balance and ingredients in ways that WE want, with consequences that WE take note of, that form inclinations for the next time WE play. And also ... anyone can do anything they want at any time without fear of judgment, so that's important, too.
EDGE: Have you ever been overtaken by a bandmate’s “in the moment” jam and left in a state of awe that rendered you powerless to push forward? Serious question.
Klaxton: Yes. Great question. Most of the time amazing musical statements are made to help a tune move forward, so despite the beauty or ass-kicking quality of the improvisation, I've had to literally wipe the smile off my face and get the trumpet up there. There have been some memorable moments when an improvisation happens at such a place in the arc of a tune, or despite its location in the tune, the amazingness serves to end it - it puts a period on the sentence with complete impunity, resulting in hoots and hollers, or tears.
EDGE: Who do you consider the ultimate shamans in your world?
Klaxton: As "real life" (yuck) attempts to divorce us from magic at every opportunity, the ultimate shamans are, for me, people who can marry the sublime to the corporeal in a way that reminds us that this real life IS magical. The movies and songs and poems that give us butterflies and goosebumps, but when the source of that art is real life - and conversely when real men and women live their lives inspired by and modeled after heaven-sent pictures songs and poems, life, art, their consequences all come together as inseparable. My ultimate shamans live that way and create art that reminds us of that.
EDGE: You’re making your debut performance at The Dance Hall in Kittery on Friday the 15th. What can folks expect?
Klaxton: Tunes from all over the map: classical influence, Balkan influence, some swinging, some grooving, some trumpet, some fuzzy distorted and delayed keyboards, improvising in different ways throughout the night. I'd just like the audience to walk away with the sense that all can be manipulated at any time, in music or in life .... we're trying to strike a deal between control and the absence of it.
EDGE: What’s the common denominator?
Go & Do
What: New trio Shaman Denominator in concert
When: 8 p.m., Friday, June 15
Where: The Dance Hall, 7 Walker St., Kittery
Tickets: $12, advance; $15, day of show
More info: Visit www.thedancehallkittery.org for more information and to purchase tickets