As a member of Dave Holland’s big band, quintet, and octet, Nate Smith holds, well, three of the most cherished gigs in jazz. Holland, a revered bass player who started his own musical quest with Miles Davis in the ’60s, has nurtured many a drummer in his high-octane ensembles, and the thirty-seven-year-old Smith is well equipped to carry on the legacy.
Beyond his jazz drumming duties, which he also pursues with tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, vocalist Claudia Acuña, guitarist Adam Rogers, and others, Smith is an adept R&B and soundtrack producer. His music has been heard on PBS and the Discovery Channel, and his album productions include the soul artists YahZarah, Maya Azucena, John Gordon, and Shanta “Bunmi” Jasper. Most recently he produced and mixed Jarrard Anthony’s Ready to Live. Smith even cowrote and coproduced “Heaven Can Wait” for Michael Jackson’s Invincible album.
Almost completely self-taught, Smith has developed a confidence that has allowed him to thrive in multiple formats. We sat down with Nate to discuss how his various roles coexist.
MD: You’ve produced a lot of soundtrack material. Does that require you to turn off your drummer’s brain?
Nate: Actually, I use a lot of my drummer’s brain then. Sonically, I use the drums to create a certain atmosphere. Most of the tracks that I’ve produced or scored start with the drum track. That establishes the basis for how the rest of the piece will unfold.
MD: What’s your process for creating a soundtrack?
Nate: I recently scored a trailer for a PBS documentary called Soul Food Junkies. The colors used in the trailer were warm, and the clips were of people discussing the traditions of food. Initially I was going to create this electro dance thing, but it didn’t work; the visuals and the dialogue didn’t match up. So I used an old track of mine, slow funk, almost a church-like groove, that was in 7/4. When the producers originally sent the visuals, I went through a bunch of older material and lined it up [with the footage]. We sent it back and forth, and I got more ideas. Then we settled on my final track.
MD: You play funk and fusion as authentically as straight ahead, which is still rare among drummers. How did you gain that versatility?
Nate: Drummers are often typecast. People assume you’re better at one thing than you are at another. But if you really check out Brian Blade on one hand and Dennis Chambers on the other and acknowledge their greatness, there’s no limit to what you can do. I believe in osmosis—things rub off. The more you open your mind, the more [your style] will come out. Of course you shed and try to break down the drummer’s style, but the more you check them out technically and musically, the more it will come out of you. Stick control is a big part of it—just dynamic control, which comes from shedding rudiments. Then you learn to apply them to the drumset without sounding literal or clinical. Keep it warm and musical.
MD: Did you audition for Dave Holland to get the gig?
Nate: I met Dave in 1997 while I was in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was a guest artist, and we played his big band charts and some new small-group music. We learned the music and immediately started playing. I think he really dug that I was so excited to play with him. We were nailing the odd time signatures. We were playing free and landing on the 1. At the concert he said he enjoyed my playing and that he would call me. I was awestruck. He called me for two gigs and then a short tour in 2002.
MD: How did you adjust to the new gig?
Nate: I listened to Dave’s whole catalog and lived with it for a long time. It sounds difficult, and it is difficult, but it’s fun. His music always sounded like fun to me, from the moment I heard it. Every time we played, he would give me a little more insight. He never really told me what to do. We never over-rehearsed. We’d go on tour and he’d point out a couple things.
MD: Without an instructor early on, who taught you to hold the sticks correctly?
Nate: My director in concert band. My brother was in marching band, and he was a big influence, so we had lots of material in the house relating to drumming. I’d watch tapes of when he was in marching band, and I figured it out. Once, on a gig in New York, Ralph Peterson Jr. came up and corrected my left-arm position! I was playing with Betty Carter as part of the Jazz Ahead band. My left arm was kind of tight, which it still is sometimes. Ralph came up after the gig, placed the drumstick in my hand, and pulled my elbow out. He said, “Just tap your knee,” then he pushed my arm back in. And I could tell the difference. When I pulled my arm out I could do all kinds of stuff. That was incredible.
MD: How did you develop your touch on the cymbals?
Nate: Jack DeJohnette is a big influence on that. I’ve watched a lot of video of him with Keith Jarrett, and he is so relaxed. He’s such a beautiful colorist on the cymbals. You can apply the different shades of colors he gets out of the cymbal to all genres of music.
I don’t really play crash cymbals. I use rides as crash cymbals. I like that dark, whispery sound. That’s an extension of the stuff I learned watching Jack. You can get a ton of sounds out of the cymbal, depending on where you touch it. Jimmy Cobb is an influence as well, the ’58 sessions with Miles Davis, and Kind of Blue, of course. Just his quarter-note pulse on the ride cymbal—that changed my life. I mimicked that. Billy Hart once told me that cymbals should sound good on their own, but cymbals are there to make the band sound good; that’s the point.
MD: Are there a couple of chops builders you depend on?
Nate: Flam rudiments helped me build up left-hand articulation. And you should enjoy practicing. Greg Hutchinson says, “If you’re practicing and you’re looking at the clock, you shouldn’t be practicing.” You should be playing; then, when you stumble on something you have trouble with, work it out. Shed that specifically. But it all should be a means to a creative end. There should be a creative spark.
MD: It seems that Dave Holland always wants the drummer to drive his band.
Nate: Absolutely. He’s never expressed any objection to that. It’s always felt good to him when we’ve played together. And if you look at the drummers he’s played with over the years, from Billy Kilson to Marvin “Smitty” Smith to Jack DeJohnette, he likes that energy, that power. Dave never puts a lid on anything. He’s like, “Play your stuff.” He might say, “Let’s change the shape of this,” for instance. But in general he’s very open to the idea of just playing freely.