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Nate Smith: A Drummer's Life

Nate Smith: A Drummer's Life

Courtesy Mark Robbins


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Elvin, Max and Art Blakey are the triumvirate for me as a drummer.
—Nate Smith
Nate Smith can't sit down! After headlining with two of his bands at the 2022 Newport Jazz Festival, The Fearless Flyers and Nate Smith + Kinfolk he is off to New York for a one week run at the Blue Note followed by Los Angeles, Europe and then back to the United States where he is on the road for the rest of the year. For the past 20 years Smith has worked with the biggest names in jazz, rock, r&b, pop and hip-hop. Whether it's playing, composing or arranging, Smith is constantly in demand and, luckily for us, this three-time Grammy-nominated musician made some time for All About Jazz at the Newport Jazz Festival.

All About Jazz: Nate, thank you so much for taking some time out today for this.

Nate Smith: Happy to do it.

AAJ: You know we were neighbors growing up even though I'm a little, no, a lot older than you.

NS: (laughs) That's right! You were in Norfolk and we were in Chesapeake. The 757 [area code]. I grew up in a neighborhood called Georgetown and went to Indian River High School.

AAJ: I went to Granby.

NS: No kidding? My dad, Dr. Smith, was the principal of Granby from 1982 to 1995.

AAJ: Growing up in Chesapeake, was music an important part of your life?

NS: Oh yeah, speaking of my father, my love of music started with his record collection. He was playing Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and all of this instrumental r&b at the time and I really got into it. I started listening with headphones. I wanted to hear and figure out what these drummers were doing because even then I was fascinated with them. My brother, he's 10 years older than me, I would watch him play then I would listen to the records. When he went away to college, I was eight or nine years old, I just set his drum-set up and started messing around and tried to play back what I heard.

AAJ: Was it jazz or whatever was there?

NS: It was everything. R&B, rock, pop, whatever. I was into The Police, whatever I heard on the radio and MTV I tried to mock.

AAJ: So one day you're listening to Sting and later you're adapting his tunes for your band.

NS: Yeah, we're playing his tunes. I haven't had a chance to play with him yet but I hope to. I just love that one of the more formative experiences of my childhood was that after he left The Police he made a documentary with Kenny Kirkland, Branford Marsalis, Darryl Jones and Omar Hakim called Bring On the Night. I studied every note of that and I can play it all back. I can sing all the drum fills. It's just incredible, that really made an impact because it was the bridge between the pop music I knew and this world of jazz I didn't quite understand yet. But seeing these jazz musicians play it, especially after having heard The Police play it, made me wonder what do these musicians have that they can bring to the music that these other musicians really couldn't bring to it?

AAJ: Were you in the school band at Indian River?

NS: I was. I was in the concert band, the marching band and later on a jazz band.

AAJ: How about bands outside of school?

NS: Yes. I played a little bit in church. I grew up in a quiet church, not like a Baptist church so our drums only came out for special occasions. I would listen to other drummers playing, like gospel drummers but I didn't start playing in church regularly until I was about 16. So the gospel playing is not a huge part of my foundation.

AAJ: Was it always drums?

NS: I played a little piano. My mom bought a piano and made everyone in the house take lessons. I took lessons for about a year then I ended up losing patience with it so I went to the drums and found a little more gratifying. So I jumped into the drums but came back a little to the piano wishing I had stuck with the lessons.

AAJ: Do you remember the first album you bought for yourself?

NS: Yes I do! It was a Police album called Synchronicity. That was about '85, '86.

AAJ: What about your first jazz album?

NS: Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers Album of the Year. The record came out in ' 81, '82 but I bought it for myself in '88.

AAJ: So who along with Art Blakey had the greatest influence on you?

NS: Elvin [Elvin Jones] for sure. He came a little later for me, I really wasn't exposed to him until college. That's when I started to learn about Trane [John Coltrane] so Elvin is a huge one. Max Roach, conceptually, not just as drummer but as a composer and conceptualist his bands. I would say Elvin, Max and Art Blakey is the triumvirate for me as a drummer.

AAJ: I was playing around with You Tube not to long ago and I found, or rather it found me, a short film of Elvin in a western having a shootout then wailing on the drums.

NS: Yes yes yes! I remember seeing that for the first time. Craig Taborn showed me that and Elvin is wearing a vest with no shirt and after he shoots this gunslinger he plays the drums with so much power everyone in the bar just cowers. It's incredible!

AAJ: What was the music you wrote?

NS: Oh man, I wrote when I was in high school. I really wanted to write. I was playing a lot in the concert band, mostly timpani, and I wanted to write for the wind ensemble. So I wrote this little piece for a professional ensemble, it was a transcription of a thing that I'd heard called "Serenade for a Picket Fence," I don't know the original composer but I remember rewriting that for the drum line. That was the first thing I composed and brought to the band to play. In my senior year of high school we had a pep band I organized for the basketball games. I would arrange songs I heard on the radio. We did a couple of Cameo songs, I was into it, man. If it had a groove I studied it until I figured out how to play it.

AAJ: This may be a naïve question but is there a difference, and if so what, between improvising and composing?

NS: I don't know that there is a difference, Everything starts and leads somewhere and I feel like that's what composition is, there's a story telling element to it. So you start with, especially if you're playing a solo as a drummer I always think about motifs that I can start with then leave and come back to. I feel like there's something in there in the way I play and improvise, I want to play like a composer. So I think that improvisation and composition are very closely related. I think that most of our favorite compositions and tunes came out of improvisations. You know, a cat sits down at the piano and tinkers around and says that sounds hip, let me develop that.

AAJ: When you wrote Kinfolk did you have a trilogy in mind?

NS: I did. I wanted it because I waited kind of long in my career to introduce myself as a band leader. I kind of felt maybe I should use this as a way to introduce myself, tell my story, my upbringing as a writer. When Kinfolk happened I was watching a lot of episodic television. I was really into the The Wire and Breaking Bad. They were my favorite shows and they had an arc. They started with the end in mind and I feel like that is a very important place to start from. I was always thinking how do I tell the story, how do I use Kinfolk to tell the story. So the trilogy made sense.

AAJ: So the story continues from Kinfolk to Kinfolk 2: See the Birds and 3 will continue the arc?

NS: Three will get us to a different place. Sort of the beginning of my professional career as a musician.

AAJ: Do you like to use the same musicians on a project, like in this case the trilogy?

NS: I'd like to. Between the first record and the second record the piano and guitar chair changed. Kris Bowers and Jeremy Most were on the first and Brad Allen Williams and Jon Cowherd were on the second and I'm hoping they'll be back for the third.

AAJ: Do you ever get back home?

NS: Yes and I try to get home a lot more now. One of the silver linings of the first pandemic lockdown was that I got to spend seven weeks in Chesapeake with my mom. We got to hang out which probably wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for COVID. So now I make it a priority to get home more often.

AAJ: What else is coming up?

NS: Well, the band is going to be on the road for the rest of the year. Creatively, hopefully, I'll be writing and recording some music with Brittany Howard. I've got this duo project with a great singer songwriter named Van Hunt that we've been working off and on since 2018 so I'm hoping we can pull it together. I'm writing for some larger ensembles, we did a concert in May which was a sort of premier of Kinfolk with strings. We had this string double quartet playing string arrangements that I had written and it was incredible. I'd like to do more of that.

AAJ: I know you've got to split.

NS: Yep, gotta dip. They're picking me up here at the tent.

AAJ: I can't thank you enough and I'll see you this afternoon with the Flyers.

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