Nate Smith Debuts 'Pages' With Gretchen Parlato & Talks About the Song He Wrote for Michael Jackson

Nate Smith in 2016
Jordi Vidal/Redferns

Nate Smith performs during Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona at Sala Barts on Nov. 17, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. 

Drummer Nate Smith, who's played with everyone from Dave Holland and Chris Potterto Regina Carter during his two-decade-plus long career, is preparing to release his debut album KINFOLK: Postcards from Everywhere (Feb. 3, Ropeadope). With such a long buildup, "It is scary," says Smith. "Putting yourself on the line...the best thing that could happen is people love it. The second best thing that could happen is that people absolutely hate it, because then at least they're talking about it. The biggest fear is that it falls in the forest with not so much as a thud."

The latter possibility is unlikely, though, given the album's all-star roster of guests and dynamic, genre-melding aesthetic. Below, he premieres the track "Pages," featuring Gretchen Parlato -- whom he hadn't played with prior to this project. "I love her music -- it's gotten me through about 50,00 miles of air travel," he says, laughing. "It's a melody that I wrote a long time ago -- a song that evokes this idea of recalling memories, of sentimentality. That's something that I wanted to explore on this album."

Listen to the song below, and preorder KINFOLK here.

Why did the album happen now?

Well, you know, I turned 42 a couple weeks ago. This process started as I was like, on the eve of 40. We premiered the band in 2013, and we started performing together in 2014. I felt a need after being in New York for 13 years, and having played with so many people, to really make a statement. I was faced with this "where am I going" crisis -- I think a lot of people get there, especially in terms of their career. It was about what I needed to do to become known as a creator, and not just an interpreter or performer. It was time to see what I could say if I really went all in and committed to making a record that sounded like all of my influences.

Getting to a certain point of adulthood is what inspired me, really. Without digging too deep into a midlife conversation around crises or whatever [Laughs] -- I don't really think about it as a crisis, I think about it as a defining point. People talk a lot about 40, like it's this big monster -- like, "Oh God, I'm 40 and I didn't do X, Y, and Z." Think about the people who launch their thing after 40 -- like Vince Gilligan, the guy who wrote Breaking Bad! I mention that because I think sometimes people put a cap on what they can do based on how old they are. I'm lucky enough to be in a field -- jazz -- where it's generally thought that musicians get better with age. [Laughs]

When you first started playing drums, did you ever see yourself becoming a bandleader?

I really had no idea, I just wanted to play. It was just about loving the sound of the drums. But over the years, you see these stories that you really want to tell, and find a creative way to tell.

What do you think about the place of jazz today?

It's kind of cyclical -- there have been moments before when jazz has been fashionable. I think about when I was in college, and Spike Lee made Mo' Betta Blues. For a moment, there was this thing: young black kids were listening to jazz, because of the soundtrack. Then Branford Marsalis made Buckshot Lafonque -- DJ Premier did a lot of the beats. There's always been this idea, even before hip-hop, when you're talking about R&B and jazz. It's transcended genre. But it would be amazing to see like a legitimate pop culture phenomenon built around jazz. Like if the next big HBO sitcom were about a working jazz musician. Then I could say, "Wow, people are more curious about jazz." As it's happening now, it seems to be still in this tangential place. On the periphery of pop culture. Maybe there will be a Breaking Bad about jazz! Where people could be as into the music as they are the character.

You're originally from Chesapeake, Va. -- an area that's had a disproportionate amount of really successful musicians, pop and otherwise. How does that impact your work?

People are surprised by the link between the New York music industry and that 757 area code area. I think there was a lot more home recording, DIY music happening in Virginia than people realize. We know about Missy and Pharrell and D'Angelo and all that, but there were a lot of guys just making records and putting them out in Virginia. There was sort of an early awareness of this independent hybrid music scene -- this kind of R&B/rap thing that was happening. It was a thing in Virginia way before Missy and Pharrell exploded. You also have to think about the presence of Teddy Riley -- he was from Harlem, but he built a studio in Virginia Beach. A lot of music came through his studio because he was still the reigning king of R&B producing at the time. He was working with Michael Jackson, Ginuwine, Tyrese, Blackstreet...they were coming to Virginia Beach to make records to Teddy Riley, and that introduced the local aspiring songwriters and musicians to a national scene. There was a lot going on that people don't really know about, both commercial and indie.

You also have a credit on a Michael Jackson song, right?

I was a grad student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I was producing -- as I always have -- R&B music. It's a part of my life that jazz fans and listeners don't really know about. I was just making demos in my bedroom, and I met a guy who knew a guy, who knew a guy, who knew Teddy Riley. One of the tracks that I wrote ended up in Teddy's hands as he was soliciting songs to Michael Jackson for the Invincible album. One of the songs I wrote became made the album -- it's called "Heaven Can Wait." It came out in was a long and winding road. [Laughs] It remains the biggest and most miraculous accident of my career. It's something I definitely plan to return to.
When the Michael Jackson thing happened, I wasn't prepared for it at all. For the first two weeks after that record came out, every A&R would take my call. I could get any meeting I wanted. But I'd roll up to the meeting, and I didn't have anything to play for them! I didn't have a catalog of "Heaven Can Wait"s. That's the lesson I learned: be ready. When that kind of opportunity comes, you've gotta be ready for it.


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