Four years after drummer, composer, and bandleader Nate Smith released his Grammy-nominated debut, he’s releasing its thematic follow-up, Kinfolk 2: See The Birds. In the interim, he’s released two other projects: 2020’s R&B-laden EP, Light and Shadow, and 2018’s breakbeat solo drums LP, Pocket Change.
Smith sees Kinfolk as a trilogy that charts his evolution as musician. The first touched upon his childhood in Chesapeake, Virginia, and the music that he absorbed in his home. Kinfolk 2 continues that narrative, offering an impressionistic portrait of him during his teen years when he made the decision to become a musician. During this time, he was checking out a lot of music associated with the Black Rock Coalition such as Living Colour, Fishbone, and 24-7 Spyz, in addition to other pioneering acts such as Bad Brains, King’s X, Prince, and Sting. Smith was also listening to a lot of hip-hop as well as the emerging neo-soul that flowered in the 1990s.
Kinfolk 2 is no throwback album, however. Smith reconciles his influences from his teen years with the modern jazz sensibilities that he’s demonstrated with not just his solo material but as a sideman with a roster of jazz titans that includes guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Dave Holland, and saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Chris Potter.
In fact, Smith cites his long tenure with Potter’s Underground band for being an incubator for him to develop his distinguishable drumming approach, which often combines crisp, funky, head-nodding grooves with flinty modern jazz interactive improvisation.
“[Chris Potter’s Underground] really called on me to use all of the funk and groove language that I’d absorbed as a younger musician and use it in an improvised music setting,” Smith explains. “Being able to stretch out and make the music interesting but still keeping the groove very steady – I attribute a lot of that language to that band. It really helped me develop my voice.”
The new album boasts a slightly different lineup for its core ensemble than its predecessor. Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and bassist Fima Ephron return, while Smith welcomes guitarist Brad Allen Williams and keyboardist Jon Cowherd to the combo. As a sideman, Smith has performed with Williams and Cowherd, individually, in several other bands.
“I’d always loved Jon’s playing with Brian Blade,” Smith enthuses. “I loved the way that he accompanies soloists and the way that he adds little touches to the music; he’s just a really great arranger in his own right. Brad is just a wealth of information. He knows so much about the guitar. He comes from a really bluesy and traditional R&B background as well as being a great jazz guitarist. That was the thing that I really struck me about both of them and made me feel that they would be a really a great fit for the band.”
Additionally, Kinfolk 2 features a cast of amazing special guests that consists of guitarist Vernon Reid, violinist Regina Carter, vibraphonist Joel Ross, rapper Kokayi, and singers Brittany Howard, Amma Whatt, Michael Mayo, and Stokley Williams.
Recorded mostly in two band sessions – June 2019 at Sear Sound in New York City and February 2020 at the Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, Kinfolk 2 projects a dreamy, cinematic sensibility as the music ebbs and flows from wistful downtempo excursions to rugged hip-hop beats, hypnotic alt-rock leaning tunes to amorous laments. The album kicks off with “Altitude” a soaring mid-tempo instrumental featuring Mayo singing gorgeous wordless melodic passages alongside an alluring motif that gives way to sumptuous solos from Cowherd and Ross, before Mayo returns to the spotlight to showcase his lissome virtuosity.
“Michael Mayo brings this incredible technical ability to the music, but he also has this really sincere and earnest quality to his voice,” Smith says. “It’s not just all about chops with Michael.” Of Ross, Smith says, “Joel’s improvisational ideas are so clear and so melodic. He’s solos are among the most singable moments on the record.”
Mayo’s sensuous tenor shines also on “Square Wheel,” a more hip-hop centric composition that initially finds Smith juggling odd-meter beats in unison with Kokayi’s intrepid rhythmic cadence before the rest of ensemble comes with a soulful accompaniment, marked by Williams’ edgy guitar riffs, Ephron’s buttery bass lines, and Shaw’s corkscrew saxophone improvisations. The song segues into “Band Room Freestyle” on which Kokayi spits improvised verses over a stabbing loop that was based on a serendipitous recording glitch.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met an MC who is as fearless and brilliant at improvising as Kokayi,” Smith says. “He’s just absolutely 100 percent committed to everything that he does. There’s no hesitation. And I love that about him.”
The album continues with “Street Lamp,” a seemingly carefree composition, distinguished by Ephron’s bouncy bass riff and the comely solos from Williams and Cowherd. The song’s theme reflects Smith’s teenaged memories of him and his friends riding bikes in the neighborhood with his mom’s enforcing a curfew of him returning home before “streetlamps turn on.” A darker theme, however, also lurks beneath – one that touches upon Black Americans forced to be inside their homes at “sundown” during Jim Crow- era America to avoid violence from White supremacists.
Teenaged heartbreak comes into play on the melancholy yet sensual “Don’t Let Me Get Away,” featuring a billowing string arrangement, a lovely guitar solo from Williams, and passionate vocals from Stokley Williams of the famed R&B band, Mint Condition.
While in high school, Mint Condition became one of Smith’s musical obsessions. “Their music was so deep and complex,” Smith recalls “And they just wrote great songs. I think Mint Condition is the closest thing to Earth, Wind & Fire that we’ve seen since EWF.”
Violinist extraordinaire Regina Carter takes the spotlight on the suspenseful “Collision,” which touches upon those defining moments when one’s reality collides with one’s dreams. “Regina is kind of like Joel in that all of her improvised ideas are so melodic; it sounds like she’s singing through her instrument,” Smith says before revealing that he worked with Carter in 2012 when they both toured with British singer/ songwriter and keyboardist Joe Jackson in support of his Duke Ellington tribute album, The Duke. “Playing with Regina the highlight of that tour for me. She’s just a wonderful musician and a beautiful person.”
After the cinematic “Mediations – Prelude,” which features Smith delivering a symphonic drum solo amidst a haunting electronica soundscape, Vernon Reid, one of Smith’s musical heroes during his teen years, guests on the menacing “Rambo,” a song that’s been in the band’s songbook since the first Kinfolk album was released.
Given how much Smith respected Reid’s trailblazing work with Living Colour and other superstar musicians, he was understandably nervous asking him to perform on the album. Fortunately, Smith and Reid had a mutual friend in singer/songwriter Amma Whatt, who was also featured on Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere. Reid knew Whatt’s father, Kweyao Agyapon, a world-renowned percussionist and former music director at William College Dance Department.
“I can’t really overstate the importance of Living Colour’s impact on me,” Smith says, before explaining that the band introduced a teenaged Smith to the legacy of Black guitarists who play rock music. “I didn’t grow up in a rock-n-roll house; I grew up in a R&B house. Besides Prince, the only other Black man that I ever remember seeing with a guitar was George Benson. I didn’t know anything about Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, or even Jimi Hendrix.”
In addition to Time Tunnel, a documentary concert film about Living Colour (which also featured drummer Will Calhoun) Smith cites two other pivotal music concert films with incredible drummers that profoundly shaped his musicality – Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, which featured Sheila E., and Sting’s Bring On the Night, which featured Omar Hakim. Smith pays homage to Bring On The Night with his searing rendition of Sting’s “I Burn For You,” featuring Whatt’s angelic voice and Shaw’s serpentine soprano saxophone solo. “The big life-changing moment for me in the Sting movie is Omar shredding this drum solo on ‘I Burn For You,’” Smith says. “The crowd was going crazy. He was playing his ass off. I said, ‘I want to be him.’”
Ross and Mayo return on the sanguine title track “See The Birds” on which Mayo pens and sings optimistic lyrics about following one’s aspirations. Smith recalls as teenager looking up into the sky, seeing airplanes then wondering where the passengers were traveling to. Those images paired with watching concert documentaries entranced Smith about the wonders of being a world-touring musician.
The aerospace theme takes on a metaphysical tone with the album’s closer, “Fly,” which features singer/ songwriter Brittany Howard, whom Smith collaborated on her Grammy-winning 2019 album Jaime, and poignant solos from Shaw, Williams, and Cowherd. Dedicated to his father, who passed away in 2015, Smith explains that the gospel-laced ballad deals the idea of people ascending from earthy suffering after death. “See The Birds’ is about wanting to be free, ‘Fly’ is about being free.”
The bulk of Kinfolk 2 was recorded right before the coronavirus put everything nearly to a devastating halt. Smith spent much of 2020 to fine-tuning the album in post-production. He also relocated from New York City to Nashville, which has afforded him recording opportunities with multi-instrumentalist Mike Elizondo, producer Dave Cobb, and singers Shania Twain and James Bay.
As for the forthcoming finale in the Kinfolk trilogy, Smith says that it will center on his coming into adulthood, experiences as a professional musician and the many artists that gave him the opportunities that shaped him into becoming one of the most dynamic drummers, insightful composers, and engaging bandleaders on today’s cosmopolitan jazz scene.