Nate Smith Drums

Nate Smith: Leaving jazz better than he found it

Nate Smith Drums
Nate Smith + KINFOLK play Jazz St. Louis December 18-22

It’s no question we work with talented people. The artists we book at Jazz St. Louis define talent. Every now and then, we encounter someone special. Not only is this person an accomplished musician, but there’s a certain je ne sais quois that separates this artist from the rest. Nate Smith is one such artist, and his rapid rise as a band leader is good evidence of this.

He’s a drummer, songwriter, producer, and three-time GRAMMY nominee who’s played with Robin Eubanks, The Fearless Flyers, José James, and many more. To appreciate his level of “special,” however, requires witnessing Smith in action on his drums (see here, here, and here). It’s mesmerizing visually, aurally, and viscerally. He makes his instrument speak in a way few can. It’s no wonder then, that fans use adjectives like “baaaaaaad” and “nasty” to describe him. They’re used in the most respectful and admirable form, of course. With all this praise and attention, Smith is still as humble and down to earth as he can be, taking a moment out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for Jazz St. Louis fans.

On his musical background:

“My dad had a big record collection that had everything from the late 70s, early 80s, groove, R&B, the Jazz Crusaders, instrumental R&B, smooth jazz before it was smooth jazz…My dad was a big David Sanborn fan. If my dad had seen me play with David Sanborn (for the Sanborn Sessions), I know he would’ve been smiling. He had Quincy [Jones]. Herbie [Hancock] was in the house.

“I was the youngest of four children and took up the drums at 11. My older brother, at this time, was into rock, so stuff like Peter Gabriel, The Police, and Prince were big…things you would see on MTV. So, I got exposed to some of that.

“Then when I entered junior and senior high school, straight-ahead jazz was coming onto the scene, so I was into Buddy Rich, Max Roach, [John] Coltrane, Art Blakey. He (Art Blakey) was really the first one I wanted to sound like. He was so groovy. There was a connection – a thread in his music and playing that I could hear.

“In college, I discovered Miles Davis, “Philly” Joe Jones, and all the great drummers that worked with Davis.”

On influential musicians:

“Herbie Hancock, when Future Shock came out, that was a hip-hop beat, and I thought ‘Here’s this jazz keyboardist doing this. This guy does a lot of different stuff!’ And when I was 14, Living Colour came out with Vivid, and that was a revelation moment for me. I was unfamiliar with the history of black guys with guitars, like Chuck Berry, and so here were four black dudes playing their music and I couldn’t get enough of it!”

On giving back:

“Both of my parents were educators, and so teaching is in my blood. I’ve done clinics, and master classes, as well as taught privately. I find it rewarding to share the things that I’ve learned, but I also learn with my students.

“Every genre has its canon and masters, and we should talk more about them. The canon of jazz is hallowed, but we should look at the canon of funk and R&B. We have to study it all. Listen to it all. When I teach my students, I tell them to go back and listen to records from the 60s and hear that backbeat. If you want to understand the music and the rhythms, you have to listen to Sly Stone and Rick James. Investigate it. Everything I do is coming from somewhere. Let’s point back to where it came from. When people talk about contemporary R&B, you have to talk about Stevie [Wonder] and Marvin [Gaye]. Go back to MoTown. It’s a history lesson, and I always learn something new from it as well. I become a student again. With my students, I have a friend who shared this quote with me, ‘Leave it better than you found it.’ I want to leave jazz better than I found it.”

On his collaborator wish list:

“I would love to do more work with Robert Glasper. I’ve done a little bit with him, but I would love to record more with him. Terrace Martin is special. I’d also like to play with Kamasi Washington and Bilal. I like artists who exist at an intersection of different things. Also, her name just popped into my head: Esperanza Spalding. She’s an artist who’s at the intersection of so many things, and she is someone I could learn from.”

On his signature 16th-note pocket:

Nate Smith Drums
Nate Smith

“If you want to learn how to play the 16th– note pocket, you have to listen to James Brown’s Funky Drummer with Clyde Stubblefield.  His drumming was so dynamic with so much range. His ghost notes speak so well because he could play them loud and soft. His touch was so beautiful and he was able to get everything out of that 16th pocket. Listen to Funky Drummer and listen to all the nuances. When I play the 16th pocket, I’m thinking about Clyde and everyone who came after him, like Steve Gadd.

On his “simple” set-up:

“It didn’t always used to be small. When I first started touring in 2003, I was playing with a bigger kit. 7 pieces. Then I realized I wasn’t playing all those drums. I was focused on the hi-hat, snare, and kick. Maybe a tom or two for texture. But I like the small set-up because it forces you to get your language together and make sure all the parts speak together. There’s nowhere to hide. It allows me to see the audience, and they can see what I’m doing. And I actually notice it’s a trend, with artists stripping down like Mark Guiliana and Dave King, and they can get so much sound out of their drums.”

On turning 45 (December 14th):

“You look at the rearview at this moment. I think about my life differently now. It’s been an interesting year, but turning 45…I’m not slowing down, but I’ve never been married, so I’m thinking more about that, engaging with family more, and thinking about my legacy.

“What do I want for my birthday? Getting on a plane and coming to St. Louis for 5 nights to share in the music, that’s a real gift. I could always use new boots too. I need warm winter boots. The last time I was in St. Louis, it was a cold day and I was walking downtown. One of the stores – I think it was a Neiman Marcus – was closing and had signs, “Everything must go!” I got this poppin’ jacket for $100, marked down from $600. I wore it for five years. One day we were doing a photo shoot, and I leaned against a wall that had wet paint. The paint was yellow, the coat was blue, and that was that. I donated it last year, but it was a great coat.”

On what’s in store for jazz:

“I think we’ll see a fusion of jazz and rock. We really saw hip-hop and jazz coming together. I think we’ll see rock and jazz coming together. More jazz musicians experimenting with rock. It’ll be a moment that’s reminiscent of the New York early 90s scene, like Living Colour. You have artists like Thundercat, Anderson .Paak. I see more openness to infusing rock and hip-hop with jazz.”

Nate Smith is a “bad dude” and his playing is “nasty.” We couldn’t be more excited to welcome him and share him with St. Louis. He’s truly one not to miss. See Nate Smith make his St. Louis debut as a band leader December 18-22, with two sets each night on December 20 & 21.

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