Newport Artists Talk Music, Working & Milestones   

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Drummer/bandleader Nate Smith describes the lows and highs of touring.

(Photo: Adam Kissick)

In stories and signage, the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival paid homage to beloved founder George Wein, who died last September at age 95. But the three-day event featuring vibrant performances from emerging and established artists honored his legacy in unspoken ways as well. Those closest to him affirm Wein cherished the music almost as much as he cherished the artists who create it, checking in with them during festival hours and throughout their careers. In the spirit of the celebrated presenter whom many called friend, DownBeat caught up with a handful of the many leaders and collaborators whose performances helped make Newport 2022 unforgettable.

Nate Smith / Newport sets: Nate Smith + Kinfolk; The Fearless Flyers

You’re here at Newport with your band Kinfolk, whom you recently took to Europe for a tour you faithfully documented on social media — including many nightmarish logistical challenges. Would you share one or two musically fortifying moments from that tour that help make the challenges you face worthwhile?

Traveling from Rotterdam to Pisa, we stopped in Zurich, tight connection, bags didn’t make it. We had to go emergency shopping for underwear and toothpaste. The next day, when we got on stage, the audience cheered for two minutes before we even started. I remember getting on the mic and saying, “Days like yesterday make you question: ‘Why am I out here doing this?’ And nights like tonight answer the question.” All most musicians want to do, I think, is give and receive love. This is our medium to do that. Even though we had a really terrible day — we were all sitting there in a bunch of clothes we just bought that didn’t fit — that night, it felt worth it. You heard it in the music. We didn’t have our effects, our pedals, our gear, but that was one of our best gigs — probably the truest performance of the tour.

Melissa Aldana / Newport set: Melissa Aldana

You’ve discussed how 12 Stars ushers in a new realm of self-disclosure and intimacy in your playing. How has this very personal music you explored alone during the lockdown been evolving on the bandstand among your fellow artists and in front of audiences like tonight’s at Newport?

It’s always a learning process because I feel like the main idea of being outside and being able to perform the music for so many different audiences is about gaining experience to be able to see things deeper — to make the music grow, to become more free within the form. So to me, every time we play the music, whether it is in front of an audience or not — we’re always trying to find something, to see what’s next. And music always evolves. That is the most beautiful thing about it.

Maya Kronfeld / Newport set: Thana Alexa: ONA

You play with many artists engaged in different works of creative activism, including Samora Pinderhughes, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Aja Monet and Thana Alexa here at Newport. How does the urgency surrounding these projects affect your connection to the music, particularly in live contexts?

When I’m at the piano collaborating live with musicians, poets, dancers, or doing my own interdisciplinary work with literature or philosophy, I connect to the fact that collaborative work threatens hierarchies built on an illusion of supremacy. This is a music that gives the lie to white supremacy and exposes the cowardice and fears that underlie it — including a fear of cultures that are collaborative and egalitarian.

Jeremy Dutton / Newport set: Vijay Iyer Trio

You’re here with Vijay Iyer this weekend, but you’ve been focused on the upcoming release of your debut record. We’ve chatted about how this release is a very vulnerable gesture for you, a person who tends to be thoughtful and somewhat guarded. Can you share some of your writing process without giving away too much before release day?

Vulnerability is the point of the record. In a strange way, it’s the only thing I have faith in. My compositions start small, usually built from bass motion. Ultimately I’m trying to achieve the sort of simplicity that only comes from honesty. I’m not quite sure I’ve reached that level of beauty, but that’s where I’d like to go.

Melanie Charles / Newport set: Melanie Charles

You have [demonstrated] the ability to provoke emotional and intellectual responses from listeners using elements of production, including your use of sampling. How are you currently experimenting with production as a storytelling device?

I believe music informs you as to what it needs when it comes to production and arrangement. So I always try to be “obedient” to what the music is asking for. Marlena Shaw presents that lyric in the middle of the song where the rhythm is driving and uptempo. But lyrically, it’s trying to raise awareness to the humanity of all children, whether poor, rich, Black, white, Asian. So I wanted to highlight the lyric, highlight the melody and create a padding underneath it that felt really spacey and free. I’ve realized that I have a deep love for presenting ideas that we’ve all heard many times, but different. That is at the center of all that I do. Part of the beauty of my Haitian culture is our resilience and way of figuring out how to do things with very little resources. I made this album with limited resources in terms of my production tools, but that is the beautiful challenge of making something out of very little.

Antonio Sanchez / Newport sets: Antonio Sanchez & Bad Hombre; Thana Alexa: ONA

In what ways do you feel arriving at this point of artistic maturity has had an impact on your relationship with your music and music in general?

There’s this interesting dichotomy going on where I feel like a kid who hasn’t earned his place in the industry and also as a veteran of many battles who has made his mark in the music scene. Full of confidence and riddled with insecurity. Feeling in top shape in a lot of ways but also tired of the grind of the road. I stopped doing sideman gigs to concentrate on my own projects, but to make a living as a band leader is extremely difficult in the current climate. I’m putting out my biggest record so far. … I almost feel like I’m starting from scratch because of the way the music industry reacts in a post-lockdown world, and because I’m not a young lion who can benefit from hype. At the same time, I feel like my best work is coming out, but all of this is happening at a very precarious time in history when there are so many external forces that I can’t control. I’m also getting a more pronounced feeling that my race, name, birthplace, native tongue and heritage play a bigger role in my career than I used to think. The combination of all these things is extremely daunting but I hope that my music and my voice will resonate with the people that are paying attention.

Brandee Younger / Newport sets: McBride’s Newport Jawn; Makaya McCraven

You’re here at Newport playing with Makaya’s band and Christian’s Newport Jawn project, both of which are bonded to groove and texture with plenty of opportunities for stretching. So much of your own music is centered around a deep groove that becomes a real opening for communication; you’ve been exploring texture, as well. Can you share what you currently seek in a drummer and bass player and how you might be experimenting with the relationship between groove and texture in your forthcoming release?

Groove is probably the most important element for me. When it’s tight, that gives me the sense of security and freedom to experiment with different textures. I totally rely on the bass and drums for that. From a bass player and a drummer, I’m essentially looking for support. I want to be able to float away for a moment and come right back without having to really think about it. It needs to feel natural but still musical. Makaya is actually producing my next record, which is celebrating Dorothy Ashby’s legacy. So much of what Ashby created explores these thick grooves, varied textures that she was able to produce on the harp. So on this next record, so much is anchored on that thick foundation while, at the same time, being able to take musical liberties.

Carlos Henriquez / Newport set: Carlos Henriquez Nonet

In addition to your foundational depth, you have this very special melodic connection to the bass that draws from mingling lineages. In what ways does low-end lyricism inform your composition style and, in particular, music of The South Bronx Story?

For many years of my life I’ve been glued to the African congas, the African drumming. When you listen to The South Bronx Story, you get a sense of the basic African tunings of drums. But at the same time, I utilize the lyricisms of jazz, of people I have studied throughout my youth and just try to incorporate my own style. I call it a Nuyorican style. I try to do that when I’m playing. When I’m working with Wynton Marsalis, I try to involve the Nuyorican sound which is basically everything — Africa, Puerto Rico, the South Bronx, Cuba, jazz — and I put it all together.

Jaleel Shaw / Newport set: Nate Smith + Kinfolk

It’s compelling to hear music from artists who have taken time between releases, as you have done — save for Echoes, your 2021 solo saxophone record. You’re poised to release an album this year with a great band, almost a decade after issuing The Soundtrack Of Things To Come. In the process of composing and realizing this record, has anything surprised you about your own artistic development?

I can’t really say “surprised” because it’s me. I’ve been hearing myself this whole time, even though I haven’t recorded. I will say, if anything, I do go back and listen to my recordings and I check out the things that I’ve done. Some of the stuff, I’d definitely say “That’s not how I play now.” But there’s a lot of stuff that I go back and listen to for inspiration. These are things that help inspire me, even today, as far as writing. I would probably say I use more space now, I try to utilize different instruments in ways that I didn’t before, when I’m composing. That’s just from listening to other music and checking out the way other composers utilize different instruments based on the size of the ensemble. Technically, I’ve grown. In other ways, I’ve changed — hopefully I’ve grown, too — but I’ve definitely changed based off of my influences, my experiences and just from living. DB



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