If, like many of us have, you’ve been awaiting drummer/composer/producer Nate Smith’s debut as a bandleader, you’re about to get some really great news. Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere is everything we’ve been waiting for and more. The record represents years of development in Smith’s music, telling his story and presenting brand new tunes alongside some fleshed out takes on some older ones.
Though he’s most well known as a sideman (Dave Holland, Chris Potter, José James), with Kinfolk Nate Smith makes a strong statement about his skill as a leader. From concept to personnel to song order, each element of the project received care and it shows. The core band is a unique mix of players that includes saxophonist Jaleel Shaw (Tom Harrel, Roy Haynes), pianist/keyboardist Kris Bowers (2011 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition winner), guitarist Jeremy Most (Emily King), electric bassist Fima Ephron (Chris Potter, David Binney) as well as vocalist/lyricist Amma Whatt and Michael Mayo on backing vocals. Smith chose the players specifically for their voices and his relationship with them. Featuring appearances from vocalist Gretchen Parlato, saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarists Adam Rogers and Lionel Loueke and bassist Dave Holland, the players are a huge part of the record’s defining sound. We asked Smith about his approach to the record as well as his “Kinfolk” in the band. Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Nate Smith: Yeah, well I started the record in 2014. I got to this point where I really felt the need to make a band leader record and sort of introduce myself as a bandleader. As a musician I feel like story is very important, especially when getting to know a new artist. Even though I’ve been playing with a lot of people, I feel like I’m still undiscovered by a great majority of people who listen to jazz and whatever else. I felt like I needed to contextualize where I was and frame my story musically. Also, it was about sort of the evolution.
A lot of the songs that I started writing for this album are really old. There are some tunes on this album that are 10 years old and other tunes I wrote maybe 2 or 3 months before the recording session. It was about sort of tracing the arc of my development as a musician, and also about finding the right players. The players weren’t there before. When Kris Bowers sort of appeared and Jeremy Most kind of appeared, and those people kind of came into the fold it gave me this idea of a very unique sounding record.
Also, it’s making a statement about who I am as a person outside of music. Who I am as an African American man and where I’m from as well.
R: You touched on a couple of things that I wanted to ask you about. The title, Kinfolk, suggests a kind of family, a closeness between you and your bandmates. You talked a little about Kris Bowers and Jeremy Most and I’m curious about how you all ended up playing together. I know you’ve played with Fima in Chris Potter’s Underground. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the people in the band?
NS: Sure, sure. Yeah, I met Fima through Chris Potter, playing with Underground and also with Adam Rogers’ project Dice, which I think is also coming out next year.
R: I’m so excited for that!
NS: Yeah, as you know it’s a power rock trio and we’ve been around for a minute and the record is finally done, but I developed this thing with Fima. I really felt like we understand each other musically. I love the way the way Fima plays. I love what he leaves out. I love how much patience he plays with, you know. I think that was important for me.
Jaleel I met through Dave Holland. I met him in 2004, actually. He was subbing for Antonio Hart in Dave Holland’s big band, we did a gig in Brazil. I remember that he made a very strong impression on me, just how much blues and fire, how much passion is in his playing.
I met Jeremy – Actually, Jeremy…It’s interesting, it’s tough for me to remember exactly how I met him (laughs). I think he was a student of Adam Rogers, actually, and Adam was telling me about him. He said also man, have you heard his demo, and no I hadn’t, so he gave me a copy of his demo. As you probably know he’s also an amazing producer and songwriter. He’s a super super bad guy, so that was the beginning of my relationship with Jeremy, but I also invited him to come and hang out at my studio and play on some records. I was just blown away by how he plays rhythm. Not a lot of jazz guys can play rhythm guitar, and he really can.
Kris was the last person I met. I met him through José James. We were in the band with José for most of 2011 and some 2012 after José’s first Blue Note record came out. I remember always being blown away by how maturely he plays, how sophisticated his ideas are, especially to be such a young guy.
I have to mention Amma, too, not only because of her performances on the record, which are great, but also because she wrote all the lyrics to the songs that have lyrics. I met her in winter of 2011, I was producing a project for my friend Gerard Anthony and we went to see her, well we went to see another artist and she was singing backgrounds for that artist and she just jumped off the stage. There was something about her voice that I thought was incredible. I had to get to know her and work with her.
R: Her contributions are really cool. Speaking of which, I read that you approached this record by leaving lots of room for your bandmates to fill in your compositional ideas.
R: How did they transform in that process? Did it happen like you expected it to?
NS: You get a sense of what people are going to contribute based on how you react to the way they play. You know, the things that move me about Jeremy’s playing or Kris’ playing, are things that make them who they are. So, you put them in the situation where – I don’t think that Kris Bowers and Fima Ephron might have played together if we hadn’t done this record. There are different circles, there’s a different age group that they’re both in, so you put them together and you listen to the way they play together and it’s very interesting. There’s a very interesting chemistry that happens there.
In terms of the actual songs and compositions, I wrote specific parts and then I gave a lot of space for people to do their own thing. There are a couple of tunes where I’ll write the actual musical material, and I’ll say OK, these are the parts that I need you to play. Then, from here on out, this is whatever you want to do, and I try to be as hands off in that process as possible to really let cats play. That’s kind of a band leading approach that I learned from working with Dave. He really lets cats play. He really does. He’s like, this is your terrain. You play whatever you want here, but when you bring us back, bring us back here. That kind of freedom encourages the best in the players, too. It’s the kind of thing that really opens them up.
When we were recording I felt a lot of stuff coming out in very surprising and unexpected ways that I think kind of helped to define the sound of the record, this intersection of all this stuff.
NS: Absolutely. I really wanted to leave space. Space is kind of the big thing for me on this record. Letting people do their thing and really feeling like you cast the right actors in the right role for each song.
R: Are there any tunes on the records that have a special backstory?
NS: Yeah, well they all have some kind of a backstory. When we talk about the tune I wrote for my grandfather, which closes the record, “Home Free,” that tune is not necessarily a song I wrote about him, but it’s sort of a musical portrait of him and my memories of him. When I listen to that song, and hopefully people will draw from their own memories about childhood or a loved one, but when I listen to that song, I feel like I can still sort of see him. I can still see their house. I can remember the Sunday mornings that we would spend together and all the time that I spent with him, hanging out with him. He was the first older person that I considered a friend. He was my grandfather, of course, and the relationship was always structured that way, but he was also sort of a buddy. We would hang out and he would just tell me stories. There was a real special kind of a relationship that we has, and I wanted to honor that with this tune.
Also there’s a song called “Retold,” earlier in the record. Every time I listened to this tune, every time I would play it when I was first writing it, I was like there’s something about this. Before I had titled the tune, there was something about it that reaches back. There’s something about that chord, that piano pattern, that thing, that reaches back to a memory, for me. I think that there’s a built in nostalgia or sentimentality in that music. Every time I hear that melody and I hear the piano part, it feels like the retelling of some kind of story. I precede that with an interview with my mother, an interlude where she’s talking about my grandfather and his time in the army and my grandmother and how they migrated from Virginia to Detroit and then back to Virginia, which was kind of unusual for the time. Those are some of the stories around those two tunes because I think musically, in my mind, they most successfully capture the memories I had when I wrote them.
R: “Spinning Down” is a good example of a tune that captured your own internal feelings, but it’s also one that feels relatable to a lot of us right now. I wanted to ask about the players, too. You have Lionel Loueke, in addition to Jeremy Most on that track, right?
NS: Yes, that’s right, and Dave (Holland) in addition to Fima, as well. That tune actually – I put out a beat tape in 2010 that had a sort of demo version of that tune on it. This beat tape called Scrapbook. There’s a demo electronic version of “Spinning Down”, when it was a really small sketch that I had just written. How it evolved – when you listen to it you hear sort of these wheels turning inside of other wheels. You hear a big 5 beat pattern and you hear these small 5 beat patterns, 5 note patterns inside that rhythm. It gives this feeling of unresolved tension. The song is inspired by this idea of insomnia and the brain trying to work itself down, trying to spin itself down.
I first heard that term, spinning down, when I was at the Genius Bar at Tech Serve or something and the guy was talking about how a hard drive works. When you boot it up, the hard drive has to spin up, you actually hear the physical parts starting to turn and they get to certain speed and they stay there. Actually, as you’re rebooting it, the same process happens. The hard drive spins down until it stops. I just thought that was really beautiful phrase. That’s exactly what our minds do when we try to rest and we’re kind of caught up in some ind of tension or turmoil. I really wanted to paint a musical portrait of that.
Also, the arc of the tune, starting in this slow place and then modulating into this faster, more frenetic thing, it kind of paints the picture of all the different places the mind can go. You can start with one small idea and work yourself up into a frenzy of ideas. You find yourself thinking, there’s no way I’m ever going to go back to sleep after having thought about all the stuff I need to do for tomorrow of the next day, or all the things that are wrong, but eventually the mind works it out. It ends up resolving itself to spin down, and that’s kind of how the song works.
R: Thanks so much for talking to us today. Are there any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
NS: I just want people to bring their own stories to this music. I want people to listen to it and be as open to it as possible, even though there are some things about it that are maybe a little bit unorthodox. There’s tunes that feels like R&B tunes but they’re in odd meters, or there’s tunes that feel like jazz tunes but they have a backbeat or whatever. I just want people to listen to the music on its own terms, I think on its own terms it does communicate effectively what I was trying to say. That’s one of the main things, I want people to approach the music with an open-hearted, open-mindedness. I’d like that to be the way that people receive it.
Nate Smith’s Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere is a formidable debut, and it’s unorthodox-ness is one of it’s greatest strengths. It drops February 3, 2017 but to hold you over, we’ve got an exclusive premiere of “Skip Step” for you to check out. Scroll down to listen, and if you like what you hear, make sure to check them out on January 6 at Winter Jazzfest NYC.