SFJAZZ.org | QA Nate Smith

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A Q&A With Nate Smith  

September 13, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

Nate Smith (photo by Elena Stantonn)

Drummer and composer Nate Smith performs with his KINFOLK project on September 22 in a double bill with saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins’ quartet. Staff writer Richard Scheinin spoke to the prolific musician about his career, his upcoming performance, and most recent album.

I can picture the first time I saw drummer Nate Smith. It was 2003 and he had just joined bassist Dave Holland’s band, one of the top working groups in jazz. Who was this guy? He answered with his command of the drum kit: Smith came on like a 16-limbed percussion monster, crushing out precise grooves in weird meters, comfortably dovetailing with the other musicians and making everyone in the club feel as if they had personally discovered this new talent.

Nearly 20 years later, Smith, now 47, leads his own popular working band, known as KINFOLK. It can get explosive, but it matches volume and complexity with a warm, reflective side that feels grounded and familial. He’s playing songs. On Sept. 22, Smith brings KINFOLK to the SFJAZZ Center, leading a double-bill that also features the quartet of Immanuel Wilkins, the 24-year-old saxophonist whose sudden impact on the jazz world resembles that of Smith two decades ago.

(photo by Cory Dewald)

I recently spent an hour on the phone with Smith, whose music can feel almost autobiographical: “Exactly. I want it to feel personal,” he says.

His first two albums with KINFOLK draw directly on his life story: growing up in Chesapeake, Virginia, exploring his dad’s record collection (Quincy Jones, David Sanborn, lots of CTI albums) and then getting into Black Bands like Fishbone and Living Colour. While attending James Madison University and playing in various student jazz bands, he met the great singer Betty Carter, who invited him to join her Jazz Ahead program, a training ground for young talents. A year or so later, while in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, he caught the ear of Holland, who came to campus as a guest artist and worked with some of the school’s young musicians.

Smith lived for years in New York, working often at the now-defunct 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, where he spent formative time with players like saxophonist Chris Potter — they’d met in Holland’s band — and guitarist Nir Felder. Smith’s dancing grooves became well-known around the jazz world: with Potter’s Underground band, with singer José James, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, trombonist Robin Eubanks and many others. At the same time, his collaborations have ranged far beyond the jazz world. He works with the singers Brittany Howard (of Alabama Shakes) and Yebba, and you can watch him on YouTube as he rivets funk performances with the Fearless Flyers.

These days, Smith, who seems amused by his status as a mid-career player, finds himself mentoring young musicians, while always spreading a wide net. Last year’s KINFOLK: See the Birds — the second album in a planned trilogy — features young vibraphonist Joel Ross, veteran violinist Regina Carter, and vocalist Stokley Williams of the R&B/hip-hop band Mint Condition, as well as his hero Vernon Reid, the guitarist in Living Colour. Having Reid on the record, he says, was a bit unreal — “a pinch myself moment.”

Smith, who now lives in Nashville, admits to some frustration with the music business. Recordings generate little income — they’re basically advertisements for shows — and COVID-era touring is filled with hurdles. KINFOLK’s summer tour was “great, but also grueling. I’m still waiting to be paid for some of those gigs. And thankfully, I’m in a decent place where I’m not struggling and I can finance it. But even though it may look great from the outside — `Hey, all the musicians are touring again’ — on the inside, there’s all kinds of obstacles.

“The silver lining is you get to play the music for people. You get to go out into the world and see how they react to it. That’s the silver lining. You can’t just sit home and collect mailbox money the same way you could 20 years ago.”

I found Smith to be a direct, open, and warm conversationalist. We began our interview by talking about Nandi Bushell, the 12-year-old drummer who’s become a sensation on social media — and who Smith has championed for several years. He and Lenny Kravitz gave her a drum kit a few years back.

Q: You obviously get a kick out of watching and encouraging young drummers. What do you enjoy about Nandi?

A: She just loves playing the drums. Her eyes just light up — that is something that is beautiful to witness. It’s just really cool to see that kind of joy. As an older musician, a grown musician, you can get mired down in the business, and you can get disconnected from why you became a musician to begin with. And she’s a great reminder, so you don’t forget.

Q: You recently posted video on Twitter of a young woman who played this wild drum solo at her own wedding reception. She sat down in her wedding gown and went to work.

A: She crushed it. Before I moved to New York, I was living for years in Virginia, and I played a lot of weddings. And I’ve found that the atmosphere at a wedding is either really stiff and uptight or it’s balls-to-the walls and partying — drunk. I just thought it was so cool that on her special day she wanted to play a drum solo at her own wedding reception. I was like, “Come on!” I’d never seen that before.

Q: What do you respond to, generally, in music? What are you looking for?

A: When there’s a sense of freedom in the music, when musicians are playing not only with technical virtuosity, but also with an emotional truth — I really connect with that. I’ve always thought that that is how music can sound — people who can really play their instruments, but they’re playing it for a reason. It can be Trane or Living Colour or Prince — but there’s a real connection between an emotional truth and a technical precision or skill.

Q: You had that technical precision when you joined Dave Holland’s band — but it seemed pretty evident that Dave was responding to something beyond that. I can picture him wearing a quiet smile whenever you broke out across the drum kit.

A: Oh man, I can’t talk about Dave enough — just the break he gave me, the chance he gave me when I was at that level of development as a musician. I owe Dave a lot.

Q: You grew up listening to your dad’s record collection, which was eclectic. He wasn’t a jazz purist. Were you? For instance, by 1996, when you met Betty Carter, were you a jazz-head? Did you know who she was?

A: I didn’t know much about her. My dad’s collection was mostly instrumental R&B or smooth jazz. So my discovery of straight-ahead jazz — really getting into it — came later. But to an extent, I was always aware of it, because I could hear the roots of it in Steve Gadd’s playing or Omar Hakim’s playing. It made me wonder, “Where did they get all this stuff they were doing?”

Then in my senior year in high school, I got into two straight-ahead records: Art Blakey’s Album of the Year and Wynton Marsalis’s Standard Time, Vol. 1. I remember listening to Tain (drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts) on Wynton’s record and thinking, “I need to know more about this. What is this?” I’d never heard people play the drums like this. I wanted to learn to play like this. And then when I was in college, I really started digging into Miles’s records, and Cannonball (Adderley), Charles Lloyd. And I was always trying to find out who these drummers were — Philly Joe Jones, Louis Hayes, Jack DeJohnette. I didn’t ever officially transcribe their solos, but I was trying to listen, mimic, and get inside it.

Q: The first time Betty Carter heard you play, what did she say?

A: She said, “I really like your sound. I really like the way you play. There’s an energy.” I think there was just an energy in my playing that I think she dug. I think she sensed that same joy that I talk about in Nandi and these other young players — I think she heard that in my playing. And as a young musician, for that to happen, that’s huge. She was the first musician of international renown to say to me, “You. I see something in you.”

But like I said, I honestly didn’t know that much about her. I’d seen her on The Cosby Show, but didn’t know much about her music. Once I started to do my homework, though, I realized how incredibly important she was.

Q: Over the years, have you consciously established priorities as an artist — a value system or specific processes that help you nurture your own creative approach?

A: Just being in New York was very important for me. Because as a working musician, when people are calling you, they’re calling you for a thing. Because New York is a creative music town. You play a gig at the 55 Bar and they hear you play, and they say, “There’s a thing in your playing that I like.” And as much as I have my own value system and stuff that I like to do, so much of that can be determined by what people are hearing when they hear you play.

I played with Nir Felder regularly at the 55, for two or three years. And there was something in my playing that Nir heard. With any musician, there’s chops, but there’s also this emotional thing that you can get to on your instrument, and I can hear that in Nir’s music, and in the way he writes. It’s not chops for chops’ sake. It’s the emotion, his beautiful songs.

So Nir was a big deal for me. As was Chris Potter — a huge deal — and Dave, of course. Those are the people who could speak to me objectively, saying, “You’re really good at this. You’re really good at playing grooves in weird meters and making it dance, making it breathe.” Dave used to say that all the time. And Chris, he would say, “You’ve got this orchestration thing that you do with the drums.”

Q: What does your own internal compass say?

A: I’m on the right track as long as the music doesn’t feel like it’s playing down to people. I’ve always been interested in music that meets the audience where they are. I haven’t been super interested in playing incredibly successful pop music, because I feel that often comes out of this thing where there’s really no room for expression. For me, as long as there’s room for some kind of expression and the audience is open to it — I’m good. I want something a little more profound than just playing songs for people.

Q: What’s a recent example of a collaboration that works for you?

A: For the last three years, I’ve been playing with Brittany Howard, and there is a very real blues element in everything she does. And she is such an authentic artist: Who she is offstage is who she is onstage. And so there’s always something true that happens when Brittany makes music. She’s always in search of that when she sings, when she writes songs. And she’s written some hit songs, and there’s always this core of truth and there’s something very wise about the way she writes music.

Q: It sounds like you share value systems. How else do you stay on track?

A: I would also point to patience. One of the things I’ve peeped out by playing with Dave and Chris is, they’re always thinking about the next thing. We’re on the road with one band and they’re thinking about the next project. And there’s patience and foresight that’s required to do that — to say, “I’m doing that now, but this is what I want to be getting at a year from now.”

I’m constantly thinking about what’s the next thing. I want to do another KINFOLK record. I want to do something for larger ensembles. I’m always thinking about that — different collaborations and what that can yield. What happens next year? What happens the year after that?

Q: So what’s coming up?

A: I’ve been in the studio with Brittany Howard, recording her next record. I have a few more dates with KINFOLK this year and in the spring. And then, it’s interesting: I don’t have my 2023 all mapped out. I do know there are some musicians I really want to play with, and there are some things I really want to write. I really want to write a multi-movement, large ensemble piece, and I have some ideas floating around. It’s definitely starting to swirl.

Q: Who are some musicians you really want to play with?

A: In July, I did a jam session at the Newport festival, and (bassist) Christian McBride sat in and played with the band. And that was the first time we’d gotten together. I would love to play with Christian more; he’s an amazing musician and he has such a great vibe.

Then I toured earlier this year with Yebba, the singer, and Pino Palladino was in the band — another bass player, but very, very different. I’d definitely like to get back with Pino.

Q: I’ve been listening a lot to KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere, the band’s first album. I don’t know that a 20-year-old could make a record like that. It feels very warm, human, about family — about living. Your mother’s voice is on it. Your dad’s voice is on it. There’s a very grounded, “interior” quality that flows through the music.

A: I definitely want KINFOLK to feel personal. I waited a long time to make a band leader record — a proper jazz leader record. I was 41 when KINFOLK came out. And that’s kind of a late bloom, and my attitude was, “If I’m going to do it, let me do it in a way that brings people in and tells them my story — and maybe also reminds them of their own story, so it has a little more resonance.”

I really like that word you used — I definitely wanted it to feel “interior,” like you’re kind of inside my photo album, walking through the halls of it.

Q: That continues with KINFOLK 2: See the Birds, the band’s second album, though the vibe is very different. You’re evoking your teen years, when you were into Black bands like Fishbone and Bad Brains.

A: And Living Colour. That was the mind blower, the gateway drug.

Q: And then, all these years later, you get Vernon Reid to play on your album. I was listening to an interview with him a few days ago. He’s a storyteller, and he makes a million connections between artists and albums. He’s like a historian of contemporary music.

A: He’s one of those minds — Vernon’s mind has a lot of tentacles. In a five-minute conversation, he can go from, “Yeah, man, Fishbone,” and, “Yeah, Dilla,” to “Yeah, Sun Ra,” and “Yeah, Greg Tate.” It’s really something to be in a room with him and absorb it.

Q: How do you envision the next KINFOLK album? What story will it paint, and what will it sound like stylistically?

A: The idea is that there’s this point of arrival for me, kind of making my transition into adulthood and musical life. There’s going to be a lot about Richmond, Virginia, because that‘s kind of where my professional career began. I lived in Richmond from 1997 to 2001 and that’s where I worked on my wedding band gigs and bar gigs and had my drums in my van, driving back and forth to the gigs. And I learned so much about music, but also just life and friendship and community. And I really want to have a lot of that on the record.

Stylistically, I think it’s going to revolve around the stuff I was listening to at the time: the neo-soul, the hip-hop; Dilla was emerging at the time. But I also did my first gigs with Dave Holland — my first gigs as a sub with Dave — when I was in Richmond. So there should be the feeling of “where I am and this is where I’m heading.” Where I am is Richmond, Virginia, 1997-98, and it sounds like this in my bedroom. But where I’m headed is, I’m driving up to Philadelphia to play with Dave Holland. That was the first gig with him, and it sounds very different from what I’m listening to in my little bedroom.

Q: You’re 47 years old — I guess that’s mid-career. What kinds of responsibilities come with being an established musician?

A: It’s interesting. I meet a lot of younger musicians, and when I went on tour with Yebba recently, I was definitely the oldest guy in the band. James Francies was on keyboards. Charles Myers was the guitarist. And one of the conversations I had with them and with Yebba was about Betty Carter — I don’t think Abbey knew much about Betty. It was cool to know I have a lot of experience to share with younger musicians.

On the flip side, I do meet a lot of young musicians, who are like, “What’s the hack? How’d you do it? How’d you hack the music?” I’m a grown musician. My social media profile rose when I was in my 40s. My first viral video happened when I was 41. So they ask, “How’d you do it? What’s the cheat code for getting your followers up?” My response is, “No man, don’t even think about that. Just play — just play your music. Your audience is going to find you. Just be patient, they’re going to find you.”

(photo by Elena Stantonn)

Q: Will you talk for a minute about each member of KINFOLK? It’s a real working band. How about starting with (saxophonist) Jaleel Shaw?

A: I met Jaleel on a Dave Holland big band gig in Brazil; he was subbing for Antonio Hart. This was 2004, and I was immediately drawn to his playing — the fire and the spirit. But he’s also a wise musician, too, and he brings it all to the stage.

Q: Your pianist, John Cowherd?

A: Johnny C. We met in 2003, when we played with Carla Cook, the singer, in Philly at a club called Zanzibar. I just think he’s a brilliant accompanist. I think he’s a beautiful soloist, too, but I just love all the beauty he brings to the music. He brings such beautiful phrases between phrases. He just threads the music together in a beautiful way. And I can’t think of a pianist who plays ballads more beautifully than John.

Q: And (guitarist) Brad Allen Williams?

A: We started playing together around 2012-13. He’s from Memphis and I’m drawn to how much blues is in his playing. He really loves the guitar, the blues and soul music, and he brings a lot of that soulfulness, that down-home thing, to the band. And I just love his sound and his ears around sound.

Q: How about (bassist) Fima Ephron?

A: We go back to Chris Potter Underground days. Fima is the leanest, meanest bass player in New York. He’s the guy who never plays anything extra, and every single note he plays sounds true.

Q: Tell me about Amma What, the band’s vocalist.

A: We met in 2011. I was producing an R&B record for a friend, and we went over to Rockwood (Music Hall, on New York’s Lower East Side) and saw her perform. And as soon as she opened her mouth, the sun came out. It was 10 o’clock at night and I was like, “Who is this voice?” There’s something about her that’s ancient.

Q: You’re drawn to voices — to singers.

A: It’s because I write songs. I feel like I’m a songwriter first. The tunes, I see them as songs. Or at the very least I see them as compositions that could be lyricized. There’s this melody and always in the back of my mind there’s this vocal quality that I hear.

As a kid, I’d have buddies who’d come over, and I would play beats and they would rap to the beats. And I played a little bit of piano, too. And I’d be piecemealing it together: the beat, the piano, the rap. And I always wanted it to come from a place of social music — something I would hear my dad play up in his room when he’d have people over to dance. It should feel conversational or social or familiar. It wasn’t necessarily about complexity. I just wanted it to feel natural. And I always thought of it as songs; I was writing songs.

Q: Did you grow up in church? Did that have anything to do with your love of voices?

A: My church was African Methodist Episcopal — kind of a quieter, more demure Black church. We didn’t have drums every Sunday; our drums came out on special occasions. But, yes, I was drawn to the voices and the harmony — just listening to the way harmony would rise and fall, and listening to the emotion of a choir harmonizing, and just peeping the emotion, seeing the reaction of the people in the room, seeing how the music reaches people. Some people are using the music as a balm, or as a testimony to their own struggle.

Q: What tunes will you play at SFJAZZ? What kind of repertory are you planning?

A: We’ll be playing stuff from both KINFOLK records, mostly from KINFOLK 2, and maybe a cover or two. What we do also kind of depends on how good Immanuel’s band sounds! He’s incredible. He’s amazing.

Q: When you left New York and moved to Nashville, you said it was because New York had become a waystation — you were never home. You were always on your way to somewhere else, so why live there? Has Nashville turned out differently? Or are you still leaving a lot?

A: Man, I have this apartment, but I just feel like I’m always leaving, and that’s something I’m definitely going to dial back — just go out when I really need to go out, and just stay out for a few days and cut back on those long trips. I’m thinking a lot more about being home, just writing and playing. Shedding.

Nate Smith + KINFOLK perform at SFJAZZ on 9/22 in a double bill with the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet. Tickets and more information are available here

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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