The Dave Holland/ Chris Potter regular attacks jazz, R&B, and whatever else he plays with equal intensity. Here he shares the shedding practices that allow him to rise to any occasion.
Following the drumsticks of Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Billy Kilson is no easy task, but thirty-seven-year-old Nate Smith has more than made the various gigs he holds with Dave Holland his own. Playing in the astute bass player and bandleader’s big band, octet, and quintet since 2003, Smith has proven his mettle as a dynamic, flexible, and incredibly explosive drummer. On Holland’s most recent quintet release, Critical Mass, Smith simmers swinging Latin on “The Eyes Have It,” plays skunk-funk drags and New Orleans intimations on “Easy Did It,” swings it mean and lowdown on the plaintive “The Leak,” and navigates complex metric territory (and a brain-rattling rimclick- endowed solo) on “Lucky Seven.”
But beyond his potent jazz drumming abilities, which he pursues with, among others, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, vocalist Claudia Acuña, guitarist Adam Rogers, and his band the Wink and the Gun with alto sax player Jaleel Shaw, bassist Fima Ephron, and guitarist Jeremy Most, 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. A rare musician who’s seemingly unconstrained by genre, Nate is touring this summer with the iconic ’80s new wave artist Joe Jackson.
You might be surprised to learn that Smith is self-taught. But when you think you’re out of luck because you don’t have a good teacher or access to academic riches, take a cue from Nate’s empowering brand of success.
MD: In the video section of your website, the first drum solo with the Dave Holland Quintet sums up how well you contrast ferocity with a sense of calm. You really nail it, and then you lay back. How did that signature style evolve?
Nate: I didn’t start out as a jazz drummer when I was eleven. I was a rock drummer. My earliest influences were Stewart Copeland with the Police and Will Calhoun with Living Colour. There are traces of them in my drumming now. That energy is a big part of it. Even as I’ve gotten older and played in more situations, I’m conscious of it. I can pick and choose different ideas for each context, but that rock drumming thing is always in there.
MD: In that same solo, you execute clever displacement, you play dancing figures on the hi-hat, and there are Roy Haynes and Steve Gadd references. And it’s all very clear and deliberate.
Nate: Different sounds really inspire different ideas. I might play one part of the cymbal and then another part of it, and the two sounds produce totally different ideas. When I’m focusing on the hi-hat or doing displacement, it’s always inspired by the sound of the instrument. If the drums are really tight and dead sounding, I’ll play differently from how I will if the sound is open. And not just for solos but in ensembles as well, the sound of the drums really dictates how I react. In that solo I’m playing the duple against the three; I’ve been exploring that feel for a while. Because the vamp is in three, it opens up all these different possibilities. Playing different feels against the meter is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially when I’m playing over a vamp. You want to find different ways to make the vamp interesting and to create [a thematic] arc.
MD: Can you address the displacement in the solo?
Nate: For a lot of the displacement, I’m trying to converge with Dave on the 1 of the bar. I displace often when I solo, but also in general. When you move the displacement off the grid, you can hear it a little better. When it’s all happening at the same time, certain sounds get obfuscated by others. But when you move it away, you can really hear what the rim sounds like, as when I play the rim a millisecond behind the hi-hat. That creates a whole other thing. “What happens if I push it this far or push it ahead?” Playing the rimclick is one of my favorite sounds.
MD: You react very well in the moment. With some drummers you can hear them thinking; you almost know where they’re going to land. But you’re creatively explosive.
Nate: I’ve learned how to relax. Those first couple of years I was playing with Dave, 2003 to 2005, I was really nervous. It’s hard to explain, but I finally stopped worrying. When you can get yourself out of the way, you can really hear what the cats are playing. There’s a certain amount of confidence that you build over time. Not arrogance, but just, “Okay, I’m relaxed. I sound good, the drums sound good; I can go for it.” Relaxation is key. My favorite drummers—Steve Gadd, Omar Hakim, Dennis Chambers, Elvin Jones, Harvey Mason—they all play in a very relaxed way. The left-hand ghost-stroke thing Harvey Mason did with Herbie Hancock on Sunlight? That screams relaxation.
MD: You’ve played with so many people in New York City recently: Chris Potter’s Underground, Ravi Coltrane, Jose James, Lionel Loueke, Randy Brecker, Claudia Acuña. How did you become adept at playing so many styles?
Nate: Technically, I learned to play less. I learned to appreciate the quarter note, just playing quarter notes on the cymbal or hi-hat. There’s an environment the drummer can create just by playing less and really focusing on the total sound. In terms of skills, being able to play less is important.
MD: What do you practice now?
Nate: My warm-ups are all about maintaining stick control and dealing with rudiments. My roots are in marching band, so I like to shed the rudiments, slow to fast. There’s nothing that brings you back to that clean slate than sitting in front of a practice pad and playing LRLR. Start really slowly and build up, whatever the rudiment is. I shed them from soft to loud or from slow to fast. If I’m shedding flam taps, I’ll start really slow and really loud. As I speed up, I’ll get softer. Playing from slow to fast and decreasing in dynamics helps me to center myself. Or playing a simple groove on the kit in whatever time signature for a minute or two—you’d be surprised how meditative that is. That enables you to say, “I’ve got this. This is cool. This is my instrument.” That gives you consistency.
MD: You played with the great jazz vocalist Betty Carter from 1992 to 1998. So many of today’s top drummers played with her. What did you learn from Betty?
Nate: One thing she would always say is, “Never hold back.” Don’t let the energy wane. Keep it up. At the Blue Note once in ’97, I was playing the ballad “Every Time We Say Goodbye” with her, on brushes. But I was playing way too much. Betty was in the middle of the verse, and she whispered to me, “It’s too noisy.” People in the front row heard it. That was the only time that she gave me a specific musical criticism.
MD: She often started shows with the fastest song of the night. How did you cope with that?
Nate: Youthful hubris! I was twenty-three then. It was just me saying, “I can do it, yeah!” One of the things Betty might have liked about me was the fact that I played with a lot of heart. She liked that I was coming at the music in an aggressive way. But I was hanging, I was cutting it.
MD: What’s been the biggest challenge of the Dave Holland gig?
Nate: Making it my own was a challenge. Billy Kilson is so great, and he is such a big part of the sound of that group. But it became a lot easier when I stopped thinking about it. When I just decided to play, I got to the point where I am now. When we recorded Critical Mass I felt very invested in those tunes, because by then I really felt like a part of the band.
MD: Growing up in Virginia, you were in marching band, and you played drumset in city jazz band, timpani in city orchestra, and orchestral percussion in high school. And you were completely self-taught?
Nate: Yes. I was shedding all the time, though. And I watched my dad’s music videos and listened to his record collection. In concert band, timpani was about ear training and understanding tuning for intervals. I was totally immersed, from drumset to marching band to concert band. I got Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method, which got me into writing snare drum rhythms. I was writing marching percussion rhythms too. And before all that I’d had a year of piano lessons. In band camp, our drum line instructor, Dave Snead, would write out his routines. He’d mix up the sticking combinations and rudiments, and I’d take the routines and transpose them to drumset.
MD: What did you focus on when you were practicing?
Nate: At first, reading, playing snare drum, and mallet work. I began playing my brother’s old drumset, just basic beats, fast and slow. I listened to pop records and transcribed the beats. Every day after high school I would play from three until six. I would put Living Colour, the Police, or Peter Gabriel on my Walkman and play along with that.
MD: How did you develop the ride cymbal beat, comping, and feathering the bass drum?
Nate: I studied for a jazz performance degree in grad school. My undergrad was in media arts and design, but I played in every ensemble, every group. I was always in the practice room in the music building. I was absorbing it.
MD: You tend to play single-stroke rolls rather than double strokes.
Nate: I shed them a lot, and I warm up with singles before gigs. I do it on a pad or on a folded towel to get less resistance, usually without a metronome. I used to shed a lot to a click. I hope to do more odd-meter R&B. When you have programmed percussion but live drumming and odd meters, you can displace.
MD: What advice can you give to the drummers who want all your gigs?
Nate: Listen to everything you can get your hands on. Be curious. Do your homework on as much music as you can. Learn and learn and learn. And be a cool person. Ninety-five percent of this is getting along with people. The majority of the time you’re with people off stage, not on stage. You spend more time in the airport than you do on stage. So it’s important to be a cool person—and to stick with it. That’s number one: Don’t give up. I’ve had to take that advice myself!
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Smith doesn’t endorse one drum maker, but his preferred setup includes a 5×14 snare, a 12″ rack tom, a 14″ floor tom, and a 20″ bass drum. His Zildjian cymbals include 13″ A Custom hi-hats, a 22″ Constantinople Medium Thin Low ride, a 22″ K Custom High Definition ride, a 16″ A Custom crash, and a 16″ EFX crash. His sticks are Vater wood-tip Manhattan 7As. cope with that?
Charles Lloyd Forest Flower (Jack DeJohnette) /// Miles Davis Kind of Blue (Jimmy Cobb) /// The Police Zenyattà Mondatta (Stewart Copeland) /// Sting The Dream of the Blue Turtles (Omar Hakim) /// Peter Gabriel So (Manu Katché, Jerry Marotta, Stewart Copeland) /// Living Colour Time’s Up (Will Calhoun) /// Herbie Hancock Head Hunters (Harvey Mason) /// Prince Sign “O” the Times movie (Sheila E) /// James Brown Black Caesar soundtrack (Jabo Starks) /// Joe Sample Rainbow Seeker (Stix Hooper)
Dave Holland Quintet “Full Circle” from Critical Mass /// Chris Potter Underground “Togo” from Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard, “Facing East” from Ultrahang, “Big Top” and “Next Best Western” from Underground /// Taylor Haskins “Here Is the Big Sky” and “Clouds Form Below Us” from Recombination /// Jürgen Hagenlocher “Corruptionists” from Leap in the Dark /// Dave Holland Octet “How’s Never?” from Pathways