Nate Smith: Kinfolk 2 Takes Flight

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Drummer Nate Smith honors his musical family.

(Photo: Corey DeWald)

Drummer Nate Smith’s album Kinfolk 2: See The Birds (Edition) is the second volume in a planned trilogy, and while the music has autobiographical overtones and personal meaning, what he’s talking about is not blood relations, but the musical family one selects for oneself.

He sees it as “kind of an extension of this idea that Dave Holland planted in my head a long time ago. He said, ‘As you’re out here navigating the world as a musician, you will find other musicians — musicians find each other. Your collaborators will find you.’”

Holland is, of course, one of those collaborators. Smith worked with the legendary bassist for almost a decade, in Holland’s early 2000s quintet, octet and big band. He can be heard on Holland’s albums Critical Mass and Pathways. At the same time, he was holding down the drum throne in saxophonist Chris Potter’s Underground band. With that group, he made Underground, Follow The Red Line–Live At The Village Vanguard, Ultrahang and Imaginary Cities, the latter of which featured an expanded group called the Underground Orchestra.

“During that time, my personality — my voice as a drummer — really started to take shape, especially in Chris’ band, because Chris was really hands-off in the way that he approached bringing tunes in,” Smith recalls. “He really wanted me to explore the groove aspect of my playing, but still work in this improvisatory language.”

Holland and Potter both played on the first Kinfolk album, subtitled Postcards From Everywhere. He began recording it in January 2014, but it wasn’t released until February 2017, in what Smith describes with a laugh as “a very long and expensive process.” It was worth it, though, as a track from the record — “Home Free (For Peter Joe)” — received two Grammy nominations, for Best Instrumental Composition and Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella.

Holland and Potter were guests on Postcards From Everywhere, as were guitarist Lionel Loueke and vocalist Gretchen Parlato, but the core band featured Jaleel Shaw on alto and soprano saxophones, Kris Bowers on piano and Fender Rhodes, Jeremy Most on guitar and Fima Ephron on bass. “Home Free (for Peter Joe),” the album’s final track, added a string quartet. Smith wrote the arrangement for them.

His approach to the drums, and to music, allows Smith to cover a broad range of styles. Some of the tracks on the Kinfolk albums swing, but a lot of them are built around head-nodding beats derived from hip-hop. Of course, hip-hop was constructed from samples of pop, rock, R&B and funk records from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, which Smith listened to growing up. Born and raised in Chesapeake, Virginia, he was drawn in by sounds from his father’s record collection — “stuff that became smooth jazz, before it was called smooth jazz: Bob James, Grover Washington Jr., David Sanborn, Quincy Jones.” Later, he was drawn to Prince and the Police, and a few years later, Living Colour. He was inspired to take up the drums by his older brother, who also played.

Smith attended James Madison University, where he started out as a music major and focused on percussion performance, but halfway through his time there pivoted and got a degree in media arts and design — “which basically meant that I could go to the studio, and learn about recording music in the studio,” he said. “That was the basic reason I switched my degree, because I got more interested in production as college went along.”

In 1996, Smith was chosen for vocalist Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program. “I met Betty through a great trombonist named Andre Hayward,” he recalls. “She heard something special in my playing, and she invited me to New York to participate in the second Jazz Ahead at that time. I met Eric Harland that year, I met Joel Frahm that year, so many great musicians, and I had never been around that many musicians my age who were playing on that high a level. So it was really inspiring to me, and it made me feel like, ‘OK, I need to get really serious about finding my voice as a musician.’ That was life-changing.”

About a year later, Smith was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Holland came to campus as a guest artist. “That would become a much bigger break for me later, but meeting Dave — someone of his level and his renown hearing me playing and saying, ‘Man, I like the way you play’ — it was a huge vote of confidence.”

The late-’80s and early-’90s wave of Black rock bands like Living Colour, Fishbone and 24/7 Spyz, many of them stylistic shapeshifters, was deeply inspiring to the teenage drummer. “I can’t overstate the importance of [Living Colour] and their influence on my playing, particularly [drummer] Will Calhoun. I remember there was something about the way they played live together … the way that they would open up the solo sections and the things that Will would do with the time and his fills and inserting this kind of triplet feel into this otherwise straight feeling.”

Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid appears on See The Birds, but listeners coming in expecting a wild, shredding solo will be very surprised. His contribution to “Rambo: The Vigilante,” which is driven by a fast, heavy beat somewhere between drum ’n’ bass and fusion, is more like a layer of atmosphere, mingling with waves of synthesizer and Shaw’s raw alto saxophone.

“I told him, ‘I want you to create a layer of tension underneath, just a sonic wash of tension.’ That was the word I used. And I left the rest up to him,” Smith recalls. “And I thought that he was gonna give me this shredding, really dissonant, fast-moving thing, but instead he sent me back this interestingly constructed thing that sounded like static, like the sound between radio stations on the dial.”

Brittany Howard, a solo artist who first met fame as the singer for the Southern rock band Alabama Shakes, is another guest on See The Birds. She sings in a soft, soulful voice on the album closer, “Fly (For Mike).” It’s payback of a sort; Smith was the drummer on her solo debut, 2019’s Jaime (ATO).

Some of the guests recorded in the studio with the core band, while others, like Reid, delivered their parts remotely. Vibraphonist Joel Ross, who appears on the opening “Altitude” and the title track, was an in-person contributor. “We did a session in February 2020, just before everything shut down,” Smith recalls. “Joel was in the room, and all of his tracks are cut in real time.” The interaction between Ross and Smith on “Altitude” is palpable and joyous. The vibraphonist flits through the room like a living shadow, ornamenting the music before taking a shimmering solo that surrounds Smith’s hypnotic melody in a cloud of harmony.

Michael Mayo’s wordless vocals provide another welcome surprise, as keyboardist Jon Cowherd and guitarist Brad Allen Williams fill out the mix with some gentle but rock-ish elements. By contrast, “See The Birds” is an airy, lighthearted groove; Mayo’s near-falsetto vocals over retro synths and a hard-slapping drum machine recall the work of Thundercat.

Violinist Regina Carter appears on the gentle but emphatic “Collision,” beaming in from her home in New Jersey. “I’ve known Regina since, I think, 2012; we did a tour with Joe Jackson together,” Smith recalls. “I really wanted to do something that could feature this lyrical thing she does with the violin. So, I sent her the track, she gave me like five passes of different textures that she played, and we kind of comped them together.”

Carter almost seems like a guest vocalist on the track, which begins with gentle toms mixed to sound like a programmed beat. As the piece goes on, multiple layers of violin are heard, until she’s in two- and three-part harmony with herself as Smith builds to a heavier, marching beat.

“One of the things that I love about Regina’s playing is … it really sounds like she’s singing when she plays,” Smith says. “Regina has the biggest ears on the planet. You can play a chord for her, and she’ll find all of the prettiest extensions in that chord and play all of the beautiful color tones in that chord.”

Perhaps the most surprising guest on See The Birds, though, is Stokley Williams, vocalist and studio drummer for the Minnesota-based funk/soul band Mint Condition, who appears on the album’s fifth track, the straight-up R&B track “Don’t Let Me Get Away.” When discussing the song, Smith expands the conversation to explore which aspects of Black music are canonized, and which aren’t. “I think that the Black band in general — the idea of the Black band — has become less and less visible in pop culture, period. Regardless of what the band is playing,” he says, adding that “soul jazz, R&B jazz, whatever you want to call it, before it was smooth, before it was called smooth, was largely … I don’t wanna say ignored, but just invisible to mostly white audiences, and I think that does play a part in the fact that we don’t recognize it as a part of the canon of jazz history.”

More and more in recent years, young jazz artists are coming up who draw as much from ’80s Black pop, R&B, soul and funk as from “the tradition.” Players like Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Thundercat, Chris Dave (who drummed for Mint Condition live in the early ’90s) and others in their cohort — including Nate Smith — don’t draw the same esthetic lines as players who came before them.

“George Duke was one of my favorite musicians,” Smith says, recalling the keyboard wizard who went from Cannonball Adderley’s band to Frank Zappa’s, produced pop hits and made hyper-dense fusion with Stanley Clarke. “I am really, really sad that I never got a chance to play with him, but I think about him so much right now, because I think about Thundercat and by extension Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus and this entire movement that centers this relationship between the instrumentalists and hip-hop, the instrumentalists and the audience. I think about Terrace Martin, I think about all these great instrumentalists — Robert Glasper, even — who are now finding a white audience for their music, but their music is built on this music that came before it, which was largely invisible to white audiences. We’re starting to really see this beautiful golden age of music be unearthed, and I think we’re seeing that because of musicians who’ve been influenced by it like me. I’m talking about it now — if you like me, then check out Mint Condition. If you like me, check out George Duke.”

That awareness of a historical continuum that might not be “jazz” in the swing/bebop sense but nonetheless manifests Black excellence through instrumental music, is what animates the Kinfolk records for Smith, and it’s likely to be present on the third volume, whenever that may arrive.

“The first record is a reflection of the music I absorbed as a child, CTI Records and Quincy and all that soul jazz,” he says. “And this record is kind of a bigger reflection of the stuff I was listening to in my teenage years. There’s a lot more rock-influenced stuff, a lot more that’s funk- or R&B-influenced. And then what I’m hoping for the third Kinfolk record is that it kind of reflects this space I entered in my early twenties, where I’m thinking about music production and what was happening at the time when I was in college, which was the neo-soul movement — not just Maxwell and D’Angelo, but also Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies, and there was this period where bands were a thing. And, of course, during that time, Mint Condition was also very popular. So I’ll see if I can get Stokley on the next one, too.” DB




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