Nate Smith's visceral, instinctive, and deep-rooted style of drumming has already established him as a key piece in reinvigorating the international jazz scene, and now his rising career reaches a new benchmark with the release of his bandleader debut, KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere (February 3, 2017 via Ropeadope Records). Much like his diverse and ample résumé (which includes esteemed leading lights such as Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Ravi Coltrane, José James, Somi, and Patricia Barber, among others), this album sees Smith fusing his original modern jazz compositions with R&B, pop, and hip-hop.
This leader debut shows Smith at the helm of a core ensemble consisting of pianist and keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Jeremy Most, alto and soprano saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, electric bassist Fima Ephron, and singer/lyricist Amma Whatt, with Michael Mayo on backing vocals. The lineup expands on several cuts with the inclusion of several illustrious guests: saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist Dave Holland, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Adam Rogers, and vocalist Gretchen Parlato.
As the title KINFOLK suggests, the music bristles with a magnetism that can be only achieved by assembling the right musicians, building upon and blending their individual voices and developing a bracing group rapport. Indeed, Smith refers to the aforementioned musicians as "kindred spirits," while embracing some philosophies gleaned from Holland, his mentor. "Dave once told me, 'I really believe that musicians find each other,'" Smith recalls. "He feels that all the collaborations he's done and all the sidemen that he's hired came into his life on purpose, even though he might not have been looking for something specific. He discovers people along the way.
"KINFOLK is about the musical family that I've put together," Smith continues. "All core members of the band have very unique and specific points of view." He reinforces the idea of family by composing tunes that touch upon his childhood: such is the case with the jovial "Morning and Allison," whose title partly invokes Allison Drive, the street on which Smith grew up. The song stars Whatt serenading idyllic recollections of a child enjoying a bright, fun-filled Sunday morning.
Smith recorded his parents - Lettie and Theodore Smith - talking about their respective parents on the mesmerizing interludes "Mom" and "Dad." On the former, Smith's mother tells how her father migrated from Virginia to Detroit and was drafted into U.S. Army, then later returned to Virginia where he bought the family a house. The latter provides a vehicle for Theodore to recall how his own father tirelessly worked at Navy shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia during the Jim Crow era without getting proper financial compensation or promotion until decades later.
"I think of these stories as snapshots that ultimately gave shape to the Black American experience into which I was born, which ultimately informs this music," Smith explains. He goes on to stress the significance of having his father on the disc: Theodore Smith passed away in March 2015. "He never got a chance to hear the music or the band," Smith says.
Smith celebrates the legacy of his paternal grandfather on the haunting ballad "Home Free (Peter Joe)." The song begins with a chamber-like string intro then moves into a gorgeous hymnal melody, highlighted by Shaw's uncoiling of a splendid, blues-soaked lyricism. "Of my four grandparents, Peter Joe was the one I felt the closest to," Smith says. "He was a real buddy of mine. He died when I was only nine but I still think about him a lot."
Smith reemphasizes the theme of nostalgia with "Retold" and "Pages." "Retold" finds Bowers tickling a melancholy yet romantic melodic motif on which guitar and saxophone run parallel lines across. "When I started writing this song, it always sounded like someone telling a love story from start to finish," Smith says. The dreamy "Pages" becomes a superb showcase for Parlato to vocalize the song's theme: turning the pages of a photo album. "I've loved Gretchen since the first time I heard her sing," Smith says. "She becomes a part of the musical fabric. When she sings, it's never about the singer being at the front and the band being way in the back. It's all one sound."
The spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement permeates the somber ballad "Disenchantment: The Weight," another tune that spotlights Whatt's thoughtful lyrics and delicate singing. Underneath the prowling melody, Smith's drums martial rhythms that convey a sense of marching forward. Written in the summer of 2013 soon after the verdict of the Trayvon Martin murder trial, Smith says that the song's cyclical harmonic pattern represents a longing sigh that many people felt and continue to feel after witnessing these ongoing travesties.
Following that aforementioned song is "Spinning Down," an intricate tune marked by multiple subdivided rhythms inside of larger rhythmic cycles. Featuring Holland playing acoustic bass alongside Ephron on electric, intertwining saxophone passages from Shaw; incredible solos from Bowers and Loueke, and surprisingly the only drum solo on the disc, the song touches upon the theme of trying to ease a restless mind. "It works well right after 'Disenchantment' because that song is about everything that's wrong," Smith explains. "'Spinning Down' is about the mind trying to work all that wrong out."
Because Smith didn't come strictly from the formal matriculation of music studies as so many of his jazz contemporaries did, he lovingly describes his approach to drumming as "unrefined," which in turns helps him distinguish his voice. He did, however, earned his bachelor's degree in 1997 in media arts and design from James Madison University. While he was still in college, the legendary singer Betty Carter recruited him for her world-acclaimed Jazz Ahead program.
Smith says that the visual arts discipline he studied in college definitely seeps into his compositions. "I love great movies and images. I've always had a deep interest in composing for film," Smith says. "For this project, there is something very cinematic about the way that I conceived this record. That's why it was so important for me to cast the right characters in terms of musicians. They bring to life the themes of family, nostalgia and identity that define this music." Ultimately, Smith likens the songs on KINFOLK to film vignettes sequenced together to tell a greater story about the unfolding journey of a working artist. This music represents snapshots from that voyage - these songs are the postcards from everywhere along the winding road.