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Nate Smith mines his past and points the way forward on 'Kinfolk 2: See the Birds'

Drummer-bandleader Nate Smith, whose forthcoming album is 'Kinfolk 2: See the Birds'
Laura Hanifin/laurahanifin.com
Laura Hanifin
Drummer-bandleader Nate Smith, whose new album is 'Kinfolk 2: See the Birds'

Nate Smith has always been free as a bird. His signature sound on drums knows no bounds and has been coveted industry-wide — through collaborations with artists ranging from Ravi Coltrane to Vulfpeck, Van Hunt to Brittany Howard.

The Pulse featuring Nate Smith

Growing up in Chesapeake, Va., Smith was exposed to the music his father loved: The Crusaders, Grover Washington, Jr., David Sanborn, Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock among them. But he also fell in love with The Police, Living Colour and Prince. In his mid-teens, he began to deep dive into the liner notes of his favorite albums, where he discovered the influences of his favorite musicians and realized their connection to jazz. It was through watching a documentary about Sting that he discovered Art Blakey, whose 1981 record Album of the Year was the first straight-ahead jazz album he studied. Those musicians helped lay the foundation for his sound.

Smith went on to study music at James Madison University, and one year of graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth. It was around this time, in the 1990s, that he began honing his songwriting skills in the bedroom of his home in Chesapeake. In 1997 he wrote a song that would be picked up by the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson: “Heaven Can Wait,” which appeared on the 2001 album Invincible. The first time Smith heard Jackson sing the song was on a bootleg copy that he copped a week before release date, from a vendor who sold incense and shea butter on 125th Street in Harlem. Smith then spent almost 20 years in New York before relocating to Nashville, Tenn., where he’s been living since shortly after the pandemic began. His free-spirited nature takes him where his creativity flows.

Smith’s latest album, Kinfolk 2: See the Birds, refers to a recollection of memories from Chesapeake. Its title is a memory from when he would look up at the sky and realize that his dreams of a musician could come to fruition. He would watch airplanes flying by and wonder where people were traveling to, hoping that one day that could be him.

This album is a prime example of the freedom of his music. He brings together first-class musicians like Regina Carter, Joel Ross and Brittany Howard. The album also features Stokley (of my favorite childhood R&B group, Mint Condition) on the song “Don’t Let Me Get Away,” written by Amma Whatt. He originally approached Stokely on Instagram to ask for his participation, just as he had previously tweeted Van Hunt prior to their collaboration. When Nate makes a request, people are eager to oblige.

Keanna Faircloth is a Washington, DC native and comes to WBGO getting her start on-air at WPFW 89.3 FM in 2003, most recently as the host of Late Night Jazz: The Continuum Experience. She is a graduate of Howard University having majored in Music History with a minor in Classical Piano. Keanna has written for NPR Music, and worked for Radio One as an on-air personality, producer and voice-over talent. She is also the creator and host of Artimacy Podcast, where she has interviewed artists like Wynton Marsalis, Matthew Whitaker, Jonathan Butler, and Dionne Warwick. As a result, she was recognized by Radio Ink Magazine as a 2019 African American leader in radio.