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Nate Smith Talks New York City and Kinfolk 2: See the Birds

The drummer leaves the Big Apple, stays spontaneous, and considers his audience

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Nate Smith (photo: Laura Hanifin)
Nate Smith (photo: Laura Hanifin)

Drummer, composer, and bandleader Nate Smith is reliving the mid-pandemic moment when he realized his life had to change. He’d been traveling frequently, recording in L.A. and elsewhere, while paying premium rent on a New York studio apartment. “Even during COVID, I was in motion a lot, and one time I looked at my calendar and realized I was coming back to New York to dump my suitcase and do laundry. I was just changing clothes in New York.”. 

Smith’s lease was up. Expiring along with it was his faith in New York as a place to thrive doing creative work. He looked around at the quickening pace of the creative exodus and decided it was time to move. He’s still adjusting to his new life in Nashville.

“It was a mixed-emotions thing to confront,” Smith recalls. “There’s so much you love and don’t love about [New York] all wrapped up together. I lived there 19 years. As we were coming out of lockdown, it seemed incredible to me that New York was becoming an even more unsustainable place for musicians to live. If that were possible. The vision for what happens next in New York apparently doesn’t include creative people. That’s just sad to me—this place that has been the cauldron for so much art, for decades, is now completely indifferent to artists.”

Smith acknowledges that he’s lucky: He can live anywhere. Between leading his own group Kinfolk and recording and touring with artists like Jason Moran, Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes), Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, and Kurt Elling, he’s built a career that allows him flexibility. Now 46, he’s also experiencing a sharp uptick in demand for his services; he’s among a handful of rhythm-section players who are expanding long-entrenched notions about groove-tending, grid vs. no grid, and swing feel. On his new Kinfolk 2: See the Birds, precisely chopped hip-hop loops sit next to languid quiet-storm reflections, which are juxtaposed against high-energy post-rock polyrhythms and deep-backbeat evocations of ’80s funk. The album showcases a new and more assertive Kinfolk lineup, with Jon Cowherd (keyboards) and Brad Allen Williams (guitar), as well as cameos from Howard, vocalist Michael Mayo, and guitarist Vernon Reid.

“I’ve always believed that creative music, when it’s played live, is a team sport.”

JT: The first thing that struck me about See the Birds is its liveliness—it really feels like a band, not a Pro Tools situation. Did you even have charts?

NATE SMITH: Yes, I did write everything out. [Laughs] Most of the charts are handwritten. But it was also a listening situation—we were all very tuned into what was happening behind the soloists, watching each other for when to move on. The first Kinfolk record, we hadn’t played a lot together live. This time, the guys who joined in, Brad Allen Williams and Jon Cowherd, they play in bands a lot more. They understand how a band develops over time, and how to bring their own composer/arranger minds into the music.

You’re working with a wide range of styles and groove approaches here—that alone might make it more difficult to sustain the feeling of spontaneity. I’m wondering what you do, as a leader, to encourage that, especially when the road maps are tricky and there’s lots of metric upheaval. 

We did a live version of “See the Birds” and when we listened back, [MC/songwriter] Kokayi and I started riffing on it, got into a little beatbox thing. We grabbed a very short hit from the track, maybe two bars. I had the engineer loop it like 80 or 90 times, and me and Kokayi went into the recording room and just played together. He’s a fearless improviser; he heard what I was doing and took it further, going into double time and switching up his voices. That became the track “Band Room Freestyle.” To me it sounds like kids goofing off after school.

But at a high level of invention!

I’ve always believed that creative music, when it’s played live, is a team sport. We’re all just passing the ball around.

Nate Smith (photo: Laura Hanifin)
Nate Smith (photo: Laura Hanifin)

Did you worry about having these very different musical styles juxtaposed right next to each other?

I wanted to represent what my teenaged listening was like—the record revolves around me as a young kid, and the dreams music planted in my head about what I could do with my life. It’s not quite “Here I am at 15, checking out Prince and Sheila E., and then Manu Katché with Peter Gabriel, and so on,” but it’s close. Pop was the way in for me. I think I discovered Elvin Jones through Will Calhoun and Living Colour. I mean, listening to Will play I wanted to know everything he ever heard, and in an interview I learned how influenced he was by Elvin Jones … which I hear now. Compare Elvin behind a soloist with Will Calhoun behind a soloist sometime. It’s very interesting.

It’s impressive that you captured all that in short bursts of tunes—there are no 20-minute epic throwdowns here.

I actually like the idea of brevity. I like it when the person listening has to run it back to hear it again. I like doing that when I’m listening. 

And you probably don’t do that so much when you’re listening to somebody unspool 10 choruses on a standard.

I can’t tell you, as a drummer, how many times I’ve been really challenged to keep the music engaging when the solos go on for a while. Let’s just say I’ve worked with some longwinded soloists. Everyone who’s around this music is familiar with this—great players do it. [Sometimes] they go all around the barn trying to find the door. Playing these different gigs as a sideman, I’ve learned a lot about how that lands with an audience.

And yet not everyone is like that. You’ve worked with Pat Metheny, for example.

Pat likes to stretch, and he does—but not on every tune. He thinks about how the audience is going to receive the music. I’ve learned a lot from him along those lines, about making a statement once and letting that stand. Pat is very deliberate about how he arranges a set: He wants people to be into the experience, he doesn’t want them to zone out because we can’t get to the point.

That’s a refreshingly non-elitist approach. It extends to other things jazz musicians have scoffed at over the years, like playing melodies.

For me, it comes down to “How do people use music?” Do we as musicians use music differently than ordinary people? Of course we do. That can put you in a bubble if you’re not careful. Because we’re in the design business—we’re building experiences that hopefully people will use again and again. 

Q&A: Nate Smith on KINFOLK: Postcards From Everywhere

Nate Smith: Taking Jazz Ahead