Monday, August 3, 2009

Pay More Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: A Profile of Dave Schroeder

It's the paradox of jazz that its greatest story is its vast collection of untold stories. Great players finish their careers largely unknown. The reasons differ, though usually it's a function of the jazz "market" being unable to sustain more than a handful of "stars". Other times it's due to extenuating life circumstances (take Frank Morgan, for example), but on rare occasions it's because the musician is so good or successful at something else that the rest of the world simply never notices what he/she has to offer artistically. Such is the case with Dave Schroeder, the director of NYU's Jazz Studies Program, a top-flight saxophonist, composer and bandleader (he's also not a bad racquetball player). Anyone remember that great scene in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers the real Wizard hiding and operating everything from behind a curtain? Dave Schroeder is sort of like that, only in reverse...he is an administrative wizard on the outside, and largely masks his artistic brilliance.

First things first: Dave is truly an anomaly, because in a town full of people who can play at an amazingly high level, the ability to translate that skill into something tangible (a concert, a recording, a grant, a new performance venue, etc.) is surprisingly rare. Dave has done more to promote other musicians and foster a jazz community than anyone I've ever met. He has built up NYU's jazz program from almost nothing into one of the premier undergraduate and graduate level jazz departments in the world (seriously, when I was in high school NYU wasn't even on my radar screen-- 15 years later it was my top choice). He has done that by attracting some of the biggest names in the jazz world (John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Ari Hoenig, Chris Potter and dozens more) and providing them with a creative environment in which to share their art. He serves on the boards of a number of prestigious arts organizations, including the New York Foundation for the Arts. Dave is also an accomplished academic-- he has written numerous articles and he and Kenny Werner will soon be publishing a comprehensive guide (and new approach) to jazz theory. During the academic year you can find him teaching courses on jazz theory, composition and the history of American music.

But when it comes to promoting himself, he does virtually nothing. Literally. I mean, the guy doesn't even have a Myspace page, let alone a website. The closest he comes to publicizing his abilities is through his critically-acclaimed group Combo Nuvo. Combo Nuvo is an extremely innovative group of musicians (members include Lenny Pickett, Rich Shemaria and Mike Richmond among others) who craft complex-yet-accessible compositions and arrangements, and who perform regularly at top New York venues like the Blue Note and around the world. But this is not a post about Combo Nuvo (though you should really check them out to hear a new voice/take on jazz and its intersection with other forms of music) except to note that, even here, Dave bends over backwards to promote the band as a whole while the performances feature a group concept-- I doubt he's ever taken a gratuitous solo...

...and this is kind of a shame, though his respect for the music's integrity is to be admired, because Dave can flat out play. In jazz the best judges of talent are usually one's peers, so I vividly remember being in a master class with Kenny Werner and hearing him give advice to another saxophonist-- it wasn't so much the content but rather the lead-in, where he said "you don't have to be a Joe Lovano, Chris Potter or Dave Schroeder to make great music..." At that point I only knew Dave as the guy who ran the program and signed off on our advisement forms, so I was floored to hear him mentioned in the same category as two of the greatest saxophonists ever, and by no less a discriminating a source than Kenny Werner!

Ever since then I've made an effort to hear Dave play, and all I can say is that, as a sax player myself, I am really glad that I did. He is a master musician with prodigious command of the horn, but it goes well beyond that. He is a unique voice that is sorely in need of more attention from critics and audience alike. Unfortunately you're going to have to work a little to find him. I did it by going to hear him live, but I've searched for some web material and found a few things. Check out this clip of him playing soprano sax with Combo Nuvo in Italy last year (and yes, he is also playing the harmonica in the beginning of the song):

A couple of things jump out at me from this recording. First and foremost is his sound on the soprano-- a lush soprano sound is not an easy thing to achieve, and Dave manages to both cut through the other instruments as the clear lead while also blending with their timbres. The song itself is melodic and plaintive, and he captures that sentiment with the very first note he plays. But unlike many players, he maintains the mood of the piece throughout his improvisation, extending the song rather than showing off his technique. If you pay attention little hints of his virtuosity bleed through-- there are a few "runs" towards the middle of his solo-- but for the most part he is composing while he plays. For me, at least, that is the mark of a real artist, because when you have lots of technique it's very tempting to use it! If you were to pick a date at random in art history (in any genre), you would find a number of high-level technicians who exhibit considerable skill, and they were probably held in high esteem in their day. But we don't remember most of them-- we remember the Van Gogh's, the artists who explored places beyond what was comfortably accepted. And that doesn't only apply to artists who took "outrageous" risks. There is daring in beauty as well...

I'll close with an anecdote from a recent meeting I had with Dave. Obviously he's a very busy person and his time is at a premium. However, last week I had encountered several technical problems with my saxophone and was searching for a good repair shop, so I figured I would swing by the Dave's office and get some advice. He was in the middle of coordinating a summer jazz guitar program at NYU but his door was still open. Rather than just give me a name, he took the next hour and a half to sit down and try out my saxophone, then let me compare it to his alto and gave me roughly a dozen mouthpieces to test as well. The amount of knowledge he has about the instrument is a little scary-- in testing out the horn, he cycled through a number of different (and difficult) saxophone styles. For a moment, I thought I was listening to Cannonball Adderley, then James Moody, then David Sanborn, then Charlie Parker, then Joe Lovano. It takes most people years to absorb even one style-- Dave seemingly has access to dozens. It gave me an even greater appreciation for the way that he plays in the Combo Nuvo setting, because I realized that every one of his notes was his own stylistic choice. Often jazz artists develop their styles to accommodate their limitations, but Dave appears to have developed his style in the face of his limitless technique...

So, there's my effort at unmasking at least one great artist :-) Seriously, treat yourself and look up Dave and Combo'll be enriched for it. And we all need to do our part to keep an eye out for more under-the-radar-screen art and promote it...


  1. What an interesting profile! I also loved that slightly surreal quality of the music video (fantastic sound, btw).. it really made me think of Jan Svankmajer!

  2. Fascinating. And kudos to you for highlighting such a talent who many probably just see as a signature on their forms. The tone in the YouTube clip is gorgeous. I didn't care too much for the graphics in the video, and preferred the black and white footage so I could feel like I had been there and get lost in the music itself. Thank you for sharing the video!

  3. It's fascinating how different people can have such different takes on the visuals, but still respond to the sound. I wonder why that is? I'll see if I can ask Dave who was responsible for the visual end of this-- I don't know whether the musicians planned that part or whether it was a separate artist (or if that would even make a difference).

  4. He sounds like such a multi-faceted person, and what fun to have the opportunity to hear him riffing on all those different styles! Makes me think of some martial arts movies where the fighters will cycle through 10 different styles in as many minutes - it's truly impressive to watch any artist who can switch between styles with such ease and accuracy.