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Since moving from Chesapeake, Virginia to New York City in 2001, Nate Smith has helped reinvigorate the international jazz scene with his visceral style of drumming by playing with such esteemed leading lights as bassist Dave Holland, saxophonists Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane, and singers Patricia Barber, Somi, and José James. The New York Times described Smith as “a firecracker of a drummer.”
Smith’s rising career reaches a new benchmark with the release of his bandleader debut, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, on which he fuses his original modern jazz compositions with R&B, pop, and hip-hop. The disc shows Smith leading a scintillating core ensemble, consisting of pianist and keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, electric bassist Fima Ephron, and singer and lyricist Amma Whatt, and Michael Mayo on backing vocals. The lineup expands on several cuts with the inclusion of Potter and Holland along with other illustrious guests – guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and singer Gretchen Parlato.
As the title KINFOLK suggests, the music bristles with a magnetism that can be only achieved by assembling the right musicians, building upon and blending their individual voices and developing a bracing group rapport. Indeed, Smith refers to the aforementioned musicians as “kindred spirits,” while embracing some philosophies gleaned from his mentor, Holland. “Dave once told me, ‘I really believe that musicians find each other,’” Smith recalls. “He feels that all the collaborations he’s done and all the sidemen that he’s hired came into his life on purpose, even though he might not have been looking for something specific. He discovers people along the way.
“KINFOLK is about the musical family that I’ve put together,” Smith continues. “All core members of the band have very unique and specific points of view.” He reinforces the idea of family by composing tunes that touch upon his childhood. Such is the case with the jovial “Morning and Allison,” whose title partly invokes Allison Drive, the street on which Smith grew up. The song stars Ms. Whatt serenading idyllic recollections of a child enjoying a bright, fun-filled Sunday morning.
Smith recorded his parents – Lettie and Theodore Smith – talking about their respective parents on the mesmerizing interludes “Mom” and “Dad.” On the former, Smith’s mother tells how her father migrated from Virginia to Detroit and was drafted into U.S. Army then later returned to Virginia, where he bought the family a house. The latter provides a vehicle for his father to recall how his father tirelessly worked at Navy shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia during the Jim Crow era without getting proper financial compensation or promotion until decades later. “I think of these stories as snapshots that ultimately gave shape to the Black American experience into which I was born, which ultimately informs this music” Smith explains, before stressing the importance of having his parents’ voices on the album.
The significance of having Smith’s father on the disc was brought home even more after his passing in March 2015. “He never got a chance to hear the music or the band,” Smith says.
Smith celebrates the legacy of his paternal grandfather on the haunting ballad “Home Free (for Peter Joe).” The song begins with a chamber- like string intro then moves into a gorgeous hymnal melody, highlighted by Shaw’s uncoiling of a splendid, blues-soaked lyricism. “Of my four grandparents, Peter Joe was the one I felt the closest to,” Smith says. “He was a real buddy of mine. He died when I was only nine but I still think about him a lot.”
Smith reemphasizes the theme of nostalgia with “Retold” and “Pages.” “Retold” finds Bowers tickling a melancholy yet romantic melodic motif on which guitar and saxophone run parallel lines across. “When I started writing this song, it always sounded like someone telling a love story from start to finish,” Smith says. “The real feature of the song is Kris’ amazing piano solo. He’s so lyrical and rhythmic in the way that he plays.” The dreamy “Pages” becomes a superb showcase for Parlato to sing the song’s theme about turning the pages of a photo album. “I’ve loved Gretchen since the first time I heard her sing,” Smith says. “She becomes a part of the musical fabric. When she sings, it’s never about the singer being at the front and the band being way in the back. It’s all one sound. She also has really big ears and has amazing ideas about phrasing.”
The spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement permeates the somber ballad “Disenchantment: The Weight,” another tune that spotlights Whatt’s thoughtful lyrics and delicate singing. Underneath the prowling melody, Smith drums martial rhythms that convey a sense of marching forward. Written in the summer of 2013 soon after the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, Smith says that the song’s cyclical harmonic pattern represents a longing sigh that many people felt and continue to feel after witnessing such ongoing travesties.
Following that aforementioned song is “Spinning Down,” an intricate tune, marked by multiple subdivided rhythms inside of larger rhythmic cycles. Featuring Holland playing acoustic bass alongside Ephron on electric, intertwining saxophone passages from Shaw; incredible solos from Bowers and Loueke, and surprisingly the only drum solo on the disc, the song touches upon the theme of trying to ease a restless mind. “It works well right after ‘Disenchantment’ because that song is about everything that’s wrong,” Smith explains. “Spinning Down’ is about the mind trying to work all that wrong out.”
The other tunes on KINFOLK reflect Smith’s unfettered love for groove and funk. The disc opens with the feisty “Skip Step,” a tricky tune, featuring Holland and Loueke, which Smith explains was influenced by his love for Earth, Wind & Fire; specifically the level of musical sophistication that the group’s founder and leader, Maurice White ceaselessly incorporated in its signature sound. Smith describes the song as a straight-up R&B jam with an extra eighth note at the end – hence the song’s title. “I wanted the song to be as danceable as possible but with this one little hiccup or skip at the end of the phrase,” Smith says. “I also thought about Lionel, because, like Dave, he can make anything groove. He’s such a relaxed player and his time-feel is so crazy that he can make any song feel good.”
“Feel good” vibes carry over into “Bounce (Part I and II),” featuring Potter on tenor saxophone. In fact, the song was first performed during Smith’s tenure as a core member of Potter’s acclaimed Underground ensemble. Smith revised the song to include another section after being influenced by Miles Davis’ seminal 1986 LP, Tutu. “On Tutu, there’s a little bit of written material and then there’s a little bit of groove section in which people start improvising,” Smith says. “Then they go back to the written material. They cycle that around. That was the idea for ‘Bounce.’”
Just as the second part of “Bounce” offered a canvas for Potter to improvise, the quicksilver “From Here – Interlude” does the same for Shaw, whom Smith praises as someone whose improvisations balance the wisdom of an older musician with the fiery enthusiasm of young gun.
As the title suggests, the fractured, hip-hop leaning “Small Moves – Interlude,” is a play on Smith’s manipulation of the song’s chord changes by moving them from minor to major by the addition or subtraction of one note. “To me, that’s an allegory for life – you can make one small move or say one small thing out of kindness or cruelty and it’ll change your entire trajectory,” Smith says.
“Spiracles” – the sole non-original on the disc – is a Stereolab song from the group’s 1999 disc, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. On Smith’s makeover, he decelerates the tempo then buttresses it with a more defining back beat while retaining the song’s billowing melody. The song includes a tender alto saxophone aside from Shaw, along with a lulling guitar solo from Rogers. “I love the chord changes and the melody of that song. There’s a cycle of discovery every time I go through that song’s form,” Smith enthuses.
Because Smith didn’t come strictly from the formal matriculation of music studies as so many of his jazz contemporaries did, he lovingly describes his approach to drumming as “unrefined,” which in turns helps him distinguish his voice. He did, however, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1997 in media arts and design from James Madison University. While he was still in college, the legendary singer Betty Carter recruited him for her world-acclaimed Jazz Ahead program. Smith says that the visual arts discipline he studied in college definitely seeps into his compositions. “I love great movies and images. I’ve always had a deep interest in composing for film,” Smith says. “For this project, there is something very cinematic about the way that I conceived this record. That’s why it was so important for me to cast the right characters in terms of musicians. They bring to life the themes of family, nostalgia and identity that define this music.” Ultimately, Smith likens the songs on KINFOLK to film vignettes sequenced together to tell a greater story about the unfolding journey of a working artist. This music represents snapshots from that voyage – these songs are the postcards from everywhere along the winding road.
"His drumming is a marvel unto itself."
"Drummer Nate Smith provides more than just a beat. He intentionally weaves nuanced rhythmic counterpoint in and out of his catchy melodies and dulcet harmonies."
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