Nate Smith: Taking Jazz Ahead

The project-juggling drummer looks to the future

Nate Smith

At the Newport Jazz Festival in August, drummer Nate Smith is seemingly everywhere at once. Most artists are proud to do one set at the storied festival, but Smith is playing three: two with singer José James doing the material of Bill Withers, and one leading his own band, Kinfolk. No matter the context, Smith is a dynamic presence on the stage, an athletic drummer who can shift almost seamlessly from in-the-pocket funk to hard-bop swing.

Born in Norfolk, Va., Smith grew up a little farther north in Chesapeake. His father and brother turned him on to the music and instrument that would resonate with him for years afterward. “My dad had a great record collection and I would listen to his stuff,” he explains. “He listened to a lot of the R&B and jazz of the time—like the Crusaders, David Sanborn, Grover Washington, and Bob James. My brother’s 10 years older than me and he was a drummer in high-school marching band, so I would watch him and try to mimic what he was doing. That was my way in. I didn’t really start playing [drums] until I was about 10 or 11.”

In 1995 Smith was playing in the Disney Grammy big band along with trombonist Andre Hayward, who had just done Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead education program. Hayward told Smith that he should introduce himself to Carter because she would love his playing. That introduction came to pass less than a year later at an IAJE conference, where the singer heard Smith playing with the James Madison University jazz ensemble and invited him to Jazz Ahead. It was a formative experience for the young drummer, who returned to the program in 1998, its first year at the Kennedy Center, the year that Carter died.

“Being from Virginia, it was my first time being around a concentration of musicians my age who were really dealing,” he remembers. “It also put me in this network of musicians [including Eric Harland, Rodney Green, Jason Moran, and Casey Benjamin]. Those guys are people that I still work with today. When I think back to how Jazz Ahead set me up, I feel very lucky to have participated in it. And it really forced me to step it up.” He came back later as a teacher in 2013 and 2014.

One of Smith’s key drumming mentors was a teacher at Virginia Commonwealth University named Howard Curtis, who not only taught Smith technique but also introduced him to the recorded history of the instrument, going beyond the Mount Rushmore of legendary drummers and playing him more contemporary players like Lewis Nash, Kenny Washington, and Victor Lewis. “I started to think, ‘Man, there’s a universe of language out here on these drums.’ The drum set’s a pretty young instrument but there’s so much that’s been done on it since it’s been recorded, so many innovations.”

Smith later followed Billy Kilson into Dave Holland’s group, and he points to Holland as an important role model in bandleading: “The best lesson I got from Dave early on was, ‘I hire you for you.’ He never wanted me to try to cop Kilson’s thing, or try to cop any other drummer. He was like, ‘Man, I want to hear your thing.’” Smith went on to work with fellow Holland veteran Chris Potter’s Underground band. “Chris was the first bandleader who created a band with me in mind,” he says. “That’s a huge vote of confidence.” He ended up recording five albums and touring for more than 10 years with Underground.

Although he had worked as a leader intermittently, the creation of Kinfolk proved to be a tipping point. Smith had a specific concept in mind for the group’s premiere at Rockwood Music Hall on NYC’s Lower East Side. His idea was to bring together seemingly unlikely partners and see what the results would be. The group originally included Kris Bowers on piano and keyboards (later replaced by Jon Cowherd), Jeremy Most on guitar, Jaleel Shaw on saxophone, Fima Ephron on bass, and Amma Whatt on vocals. “Taking the lesson from Dave, you hire people for the sound they bring, and write for the sound,” he says. “The other thing that I learned from Chris was to keep your hands off the process and just let people play.” The result is funky and freewheeling, a sound with as many influences as band members.

Postcards from Everywhere, the group’s subsequent album, released on Ropeadope in 2017 and promoted largely by Smith himself, went on to be nominated for two Grammys, for Best Jazz Album and for Best Jazz Composition. Although he didn’t win either one, it was a remarkable accomplishment and validation for a relatively unknown artist. “I think the Grammy experience has helped me professionally,” he notes. “With this new project that I’m doing—a solo drums record—it’s the same process. I’m using my socials, I’m using my shows to plant the seed to let people know that the record is coming out, and then when it comes out, hopefully it makes an impact.”

Smith says that the idea for the solo project, called Pocket Change, came in part from fans on social media who responded to his drum-specific clinics and posts. “There are drum fans who just want to hear drum solos, and just want to hear this development of playing themes inside of a groove,” he explains. “I didn’t have any triggers, I didn’t have any electronics … it was just drums. I was trying to tell as many stories as I could with the kit.”

One thing’s for sure: The audience for the solo drum work will be quite different from Kinfolk’s, which has turned out to be younger and more diverse than any of Smith’s jazz bands. “One of the most ingenious things that Sly Stone ever did,” he says, “was that he wanted to see an integrated audience, so he made an integrated band.” Smith approached Kinfolk in much the same way: “As long as people see people who look like them making the music, then people can relate to the music in that way. But as long as it feels far away, so in the past and so distant, it’s hard for people to relate to that. Kinfolk’s audience is a mixed audience. It’s men, women, black, white, and brown. It makes me hopeful, not just for the future of the music, but the future of us as people.”