Drummer Nate Smith’s Universe of Beats

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A promotional video for Nate Smith’s solo drum collection Pocket Change describes it as an assortment of “beats, breaks and excursions.”

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

Nate Smith’s solo drum suite, Pocket Change, marks the 44-year-old drummer’s second response to a question he asked himself several years ago, when bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter—with whom he made odd meters flow for much of the latter aughts—began to focus on new projects with different personnel.

“Drummers can get caught in the whirlwind of work,” Smith said over a recent lunch at a Harlem bistro. “But when the work with Dave and Chris slowed down, I was left with time to look for who I am without them.”

To find answers, Smith went to the piano, and began the process he described as “putting something together that tied all my experiences as a sideman into one thing. Once I decided to do that, and focused on which musicians to record with, I knew I had a direction.”

The result was 2017’s Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (Ropeadope), a do-it-yourself production on which Smith augmented a strong unit with the voice of Gretchen Parlato, as well as some previous employers, including guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers. Distinct melodies complement an array of Smith’s bespoke grooves, executed with drum-machine precision and a speculative attitude. As a producer, Smith was careful not to let the bells and whistles obscure the idiosyncratic personalities of his associates.

While conceiving Kinfolk, Smith was creating beats for various clients, including a collaboration with The Loop Loft (a sample shop that was acquired by Native Instruments in 2018). The Loop Loft will release select drum patterns as Nate Smith Vol. 3, Pocket Change, while Smith will self-release the proper album on vinyl and digital formats. He noticed a substantial uptick in Instagram-YouTube-Facebook engagement in response to promotional videos on which he plays “simple-sounding grooves that I try to switch up and change.” He mashed up jazz titans like Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Art Blakey, as well as contemporary influences like Omar Hakim, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Steve Gadd, and hip-hop avatars like J Dilla and Questlove.

Smith stated that for the initial Loop Loft production he felt a bit “constricted.” So, for his new project, he said he wanted “to open up the idea of playing on a grid, with a click track, then deconstructing to see how far I can stray and still land on the 1.”

Rather than bring a game plan into the studio, Smith spontaneously chose techniques to work with. On “Day In Dusk” (“something in 3 that modulates to 12/8”), he removes the snares, exploring the shades and colors of the toms. “Big Little Five” modulates between 5/8 and 5/4. On “Wobbly,” Smith employs his own way of swinging J Dilla’s “drunk on cognac” beats; on “What It Do” he breaks up the rhythm to mimic “the idea of lilts and swing in conversation.” His compressed voice enters the flow of “Paved,” while his refined production skills come to the fore in manipulated tonality of “Spressly So.”

At press time, a YouTube clip of Smith’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert posted in November 2017 had generated more than 519,000 views; a Pocket Change clip shot at Jazz Standard and posted in July had nearly 115,000 views. This enthusiastic online response reinforces Smith’s contention that “it’s important for drummers to make it known you have an imagination and important ideas that should be heard.” He continued: “Record labels, booking agents, management still can’t imagine the drummer-as-bandleader. But numbers don’t lie. Now, you can engage directly with your fans. ‘Hey, you like this music? This is my next show. Here are the tickets. You like this track? It’s on my album; here’s the link.’

“The Internet is a crowded place. But there’s room for all those voices. There’s lot of freedom if you engage directly with people.” DB




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May 2019
Branford Marsalis
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