Q&A: Dave Schroeder
By day, Dave Schroeder is the Director of New York University’s Steinhardt Jazz Studies program and by night, he is the leader and one of the featured instrumentalists of the New York City based eclectic group Combo Nuvo (a group comprised of some of Schroeder’s esteemed NYU faculty). Combo Nuvo combines influences from blues, jazz, classical and world music into a hybrid of melodically rich and inspiring music that balances beautiful ensemble work, intriguing rhythmic textures and skillful improvisation and interplay. The group frequently performs in the New York area as well as with various activities surrounding the NYU Jazz Studies Department. In addition, the band tours internationally and has recorded two albums (Nouveau Sketches and Christmas From The Blue Note). Recently the band performed and recorded with the Costa Rica National Symphony and I was able to watch the performance on DVD. I thoroughly enjoyed the music and playing from all of the members and one of the highlights was Dave’s performance on his own composition “Vivian and Her Sister.” It prompted me to ask him a few questions about Combo Nuvo, the experience of playing with the Costa Rica National Symphony and the story behind this arresting song. – JV
Tell us about the concept and influences behind Combo Nuvo?
I formed Combo Nuvo in 1999 as a collective ensemble that integrated a unique combination of instruments and original compositions influenced by the musical experiences from each musician. The group as it currently exists includes Lenny Pickett on a variety of woodwinds, Rich Shemaria on piano, Gil Goldstein on accordion, Brad Shepik on acoustic guitar, Mike Richmond on cello, John Hadfield on percussion, and me on various woodwinds and harmonicas. We began testing out our new compositions and new instruments in the back room of a bistro in Greenwich Village called Café Figaro back in 1999. I’m certain that the band sounded rough as we were treading on new territory. Well, within the past eleven years, we have had the great privilege to performed with symphonies around the world including the United Arab Emirates Philharmonic in Abu Dhabi, various Italian chamber groups, and on this video with the Costa Rica National Symphony.
Combo Nuvo recently performed and record with the Costa Rica National Symphony. How did that opportunity present itself and what was the experience like?
I had made a connection with the Costa Rica Cultural Center nearly eight years earlier and we had been discussing the possibility of having Combo Nuvo perform with their national symphony for some time. Usually the process of organizing such a large undertaking takes forever. But, as most people know, my middle name is “Persistence,” and eventually the opportunity presented itself and we jumped on it. There can be nothing more amazing and fulfilling for musicians than than to perform your own music live with a full symphony orchestra. Each time I get this opportunity, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven!
What was the biggest challenge in preparing your music for a symphony orchestra?
For Combo Nuvo, the biggest challenge is to coordinate a date where all seven-band members are available at the same time. It is tricky trying to navigate Lenny Pickett’s schedule at Saturday Night Live, or Gil Goldstein’s recording sessions for instance. But when it comes together, Combo Nuvo with full orchestra is like nothing else. Fortunately, we have Rich Shemaria in the group who is both our pianist, composer and arranger. His orchestration skills in arranging our music with full orchestra is second to none. Is is a true master, as you can hear.
One of the highlights from your concert with the Costa Rica National Symphony was your performance of your composition “Vivian and Her Sister.” Can you tell us about the inspiration and story behind composing this beautiful song?
I wrote this piece based on my mother’s lifelong bond with her sister Evelyn. For most of their lives they lived in different regions of the country and rarely saw or spoke with each other. Though they were very close in their youth, life simply got in the way and they remained separated up until my aunt passed in the 90’s. People relate to this story, as there is a common thread with lost sibling relationships for many of us. Certainly in today’s world with cell phones and Skype, people are more connected than when Vivian and her sister would correspond mostly through handwritten letters week after week.
On “Vivian and Her Sister” you are performing the melody on chromatic harmonica and then switch to soprano saxophone for the solo section of the tune. Both instrumental parts require a different kind of playing within the context of the composition, can you tell us how you adjust physically and musically when you play different instruments within the same tune and who are your major influences on each instrument performed in this clip?
It is often rare for musicians to play a variety of instruments in performance. For instance, likely most the orchestra members in the video are focused on their primary instrument. For years I was stuck in that same mold thinking I was simply a saxophonist, but through an odd twist of fate, I was given a chromatic harmonica and slowly began figuring out how to play it. As a matter of fact, I seem to get more attention now as a harmonica player that as a saxophonist. I guess since fewer people play the chromatic harmonica, audiences are more drawn to its unique voice. My entire group is founded on the premise that we can play a variety of instruments and introduce them into new situations musically. Lenny, for instance also plays a tiny Eb Clarinet somewhat sounding like a Kalimba, or African thumb piano, and bassist Mike Richmond is playing electric cello. We are always trying to break out of the mold where certain instruments can only be used in certain contexts. We incorporate a wide variety of instruments into music influenced by jazz, classical, world, blues, etc. The combinations are often fresh sounding and always entertaining.
As for my influences on harmonica, Toots Thielemans is the master for all time. I first heard him on the sound track to the movie Midnight Cowboy in the 60s, and later on my favorite recordings with Jaco Pastorious. I never thought I would play harmonica, much less get to know Toots personally after all these years from my friend and pianist Kenny Werner who has work with Toots for decades. In addition, nobody has a sound or melodic phrasing on harmonica like Stevie Wonder, also known as Eivets Rednow on his solo harmonica recording. On soprano sax, Wayne Shorter is my man. John Coltrane once made the statement about tenor player Stan Getz; “We would all sound like Stan Getz if we could.” Well, as for me, I would sound like Wayne Shorter if I could.