As the last notes of “Ode to Joy” fade into the sun-lit room, the two musicians face each other, huge smiles span their faces, their instruments still ringing with the hum and throb of music that, by some mysterious alchemy, has merged the grace and elegance of classical with the propulsive drive of bluegrass. The song is the perfect introduction to the duo and a perfect metaphor for the two very individual talents who helped bring it to life.
Kim Koskela and Dave Schwartz, better known as Chambergrass, first met in 2004 while fishing for shad along the banks of the Roanoke River. Though the two quickly forged a bond based around their mutual love of music, they quickly realized their radically different backgrounds would prove a challenge to future collaborations. While Schwartz, a bass player, came from a family steeped in the traditions of classical music, Koskela was an avid bluegrass aficionado who had spent three decades honing her skills on the banjo. While neither Koskela nor Schwartz had ventured far from their roots, they both longed to stretch out, to reach across the musical void and discover the secrets of the other’s world.
On the banks of the Roanoke River, the two musicians made a pact: She would provide the bluegrass knowledge and he would teach her the intricacies of classical music.
“We just decided that we wanted to play together and we’re going to make this work somehow,” said Koskela yesterday, as she tuned up her banjo. “I gave him Bill Monroe records to listen to. He kept calling me up and telling me we needed a fiddle player. I just kept telling him ‘Dave, you know how to use a bow, you are the fiddle player.’”
“It was very puzzling at first,” she stated, with a look of exaggerated perplexity. “We asked ourselves, ‘Are we insane for doing this? Will it work?’”
According to Koskela, through a long process of trial and error, the two eventually merged their influences into a cohesive mix, drawing on the best of both worlds. “We picked songs that we both liked and then we just figured out how to play them together.”
As their confidence grew, they began playing for audiences across the Valley, putting in appearances at the Roanoke Canal Trail Museum, the Halifax Day’s celebration and other festivals across the region.
Yesterday evening, the duo celebrated the fruits of their patience and practice with an impromptu gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn in Roanoke Rapids to celebrate the release of their first CD together, ‘At The Theater,’ a collection of fan favorites recorded during two days last fall at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.
As light refreshments were served, the group performed a selection of their newly-recorded songs. Dressed in a button down dress shirt, black tie and black slacks, Schwartz alternately caressed and plucked his stand-up bass, while Koskela, who favors cowboy boots and flowing skirts, picked out notes and rolls on her banjo with silver, steel-tipped finger picks.
“It’s so great,” stated a clearly excited Schwartz, as he took a break to sign CDs for fans between the group’s performances. “It’s kind of like graduating, when you know you’ve made it.”
“Everybody has been so nice,” he added. “We have to thank Phyliss Lee (former City Manager) for letting us in the theater to rehearse. The sound is just perfect in there.”
The CD, which consists of 16 songs, covers a unique stylistic range spanning the traditional bluegrass of ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Jerusalem Ridge,’ a Bill Monroe song, to the classical tones of ‘Gavotte,’ a beautifully realized piece that draws its origins from a French folk dance. The somber tones of gospel influenced numbers such as ‘Jesus Joy of Man’s Desire’ give way to the raucous good times of ‘Great Big Woman,’ and ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival,’ a Ray Stevens talking-comedy number that drew rounds of laughs from the crowd gathered for yesterday’s release party.
The sound on the disc is big and warm, enveloping the listener in the clearly defined yet intricately woven world of acoustic bass and banjo. “It sounds just like when we play in a room,” said Koskela. “We didn’t want a lot of effects and reverb. We wanted it to sound like we were playing in your living room in front of you. We had to be real about it.”
For his part, Schwartz said the chance to play with his bluegrass mentor, who he calls “one of the best banjo players in the state,” has been the joyful culmination of four years of hard work. “I’m just really excited to get this CD out and record with Kim,” he stated. “We put a lot of time and effort into this.”
Koskela and Schwartz said a live Chambergrass album is currently in the works, which will be comprised of recordings from their popular First Friday Acoustic Jam appearances at Halifax Community College. The duo said they also have plans for a gospel album in the near future.
Said Schwartz: “It’s very exciting. I never thought we would do anything like this. The community has just been so supportive; coming out to see us and letting us record at the theater. We have so many friends in the community; every time we play it’s like a family reunion.”
With a series of concerts, bluegrass and folk festival appearances on the horizon, the two very different, very determined musical partners seem destined to carry their music into the future, together.
“We just started something crazy and people seem to enjoy it,” said Koskela. “We didn’t expect this at all. We just love playing.”