A jazz drummer by trade, yet with an innate ability to enthrall with groove intensity alone, Nate Smith is reanimating the eternal grace, mystery, and magic of the 16th-note soul/R&B groove, which he simply calls “pocket.” Introduced to Instagram and Facebook audiences by a series of videos shot at the concerts of soul ’n’ jazz singer José James, Smith has become a social media star, his groove-drenched clips regularly racking up views in the millions. And his message couldn’t be simpler.
Typically culled from deep within a José James concert, when a fevered song performance climaxes in a drum solo, Smith lets rip with what is now his patented 16th-note pocket. It’s a sleekly polished vehicle of 2-and-4 backbeat, its quarter-note pulses sewn together and set aloft by Nate’s hypnotic 16th-note hi-hat rhythm, while his right foot pumps hand-in-glove bass drum permutations below. And the permutations continue around the set, as Smith explores a million and one ways to dissect, expand, and enlighten the groove with popping floor tom slams, swirling snare ruffs, abrupt cymbal shouts, and disruptive time trails.
Nate Smith connects.
His setup: simple—snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat, cymbals. His touch: light, swift, and propulsive. His tone: dark and pungent. His ghost-note-encrusted signature: instantly recognizable.
A star is born.
If you take Nate Smith on his sexy 16th notes alone, though, you’d be missing much. Smith’s a veteran of the groups of estimable bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Adam Rogers (DICE), and jazz luminaries Betty Carter, Ravi Coltrane, Lionel Loueke, Regina Carter, Nicholas Payton, and John Patitucci, and even pop hipster Joe Jackson. Smith is also a revered educator, having served on the faculty of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead at the Kennedy Center (2013, 2014) as well as the 2014 Thailand International Jazz Conference. In 2015, he was the featured artist in residence at his alma mater, James Madison University, where he received a B.S. in media arts and design in 1997.
That Smith wasn’t a music major in college speaks to his renegade stance, his artistic vision, his groove drumming swimming a jazz circumference. If you’re looking for a key to discovering your own individuality, Nate Smith’s life lesson is one to embrace.
In the summer of 2017, when José James videos featuring Smith’s heated 16th-note solos were beginning to catch fire on social media, the drummer released his thoughtful and at times provocative sophomore album, Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere, on his own Waterbaby Music label, for which he would receive a Grammy Award nomination for the song “Home Free.” MD spoke with Nate after he’d returned from performing two nights at D.C.’s Blues Alley with Ravi Coltrane.
MD: When Kinfolk was released, MD offered you an inside feature, but you held out for a cover. What gave you the confidence to know you would get the cover eventually?
Nate: I didn’t know I would get it. I just thought to myself, I’m going to keep working. And since MD did a feature on me previously, and this is the time for me to really expand…. I’m looking at the Instagram and Facebook numbers and the requests that I’m getting for lessons and instructional videos, and I’m realizing that all of this work is having an impact and resonating with people.
MD: So social media numbers translate into lessons?
Nate: They do, it’s turned into lessons, master classes, clinics. The two guys I’m working with at Ludwig and Evans, Ulysses Salazar and Kyle Thomas, respectively, they’re younger guys looking to bridge this gap between the companies and social media. They saw that these videos were going viral, into the thousands and even millions of views. José James will post a video with me, and then I’ll repost it. Eventually my numbers—because so many drummers are following me, and they share it and reshare it—the view count rises exponentially. The last video we posted showed me dropping a drum stick during a José James show, and I continued to play my solo.
MD: So you’re playing a one-handed groove solo?
Nate: Yes, that’s it. Last time I checked, that video had 3.5 million views.
MD: That’s remarkable.
Nate: A couple things happened at once. The video thing was happening and social media was taking off as I was releasing this record. I don’t know if the people who like Kinfolk and the people who like drum videos are the same people, but some of them are. There was some overlap, and I thought: This is reaching enough people that I should try to make as big an impact with an issue as I can. I was saying to people, “I’m not only a drummer who drops sticks and makes videos, I actually write songs and have a band!” So some of that audience has followed me over to Kinfolk. But most people into Kinfolk are jazz fans, music fans anyway. I can’t nail the demographics, but there’s definitely a difference between those two audiences.
MD: What is it about the pocket that fascinates audiences?
Nate: The trend has been that you’d watch drum video after drum video. And these guys and girls would play amazing fill after amazing fill. After thirty seconds of incredible drumming, it’s like…so where’s the story? Where’s the dynamics? Where’s the touch? Where’s the suspense? There’s no risk if you pull off everything you’re going for. My clips that have gotten the most views are live ones from José James shows. You hear the audience reacting, and that’s important; it makes people feel like they’re part of the event.
The other thing, in some of the videos the unexpected happens. A stick will break, or I’ll drop a stick or go for something that I don’t quite pull off. People can see that it’s improvised. And it’s minimal; I’m just playing kick, snare, and hi-hat. I’m trying to find this language using the ghost notes and the hi-hat differently, with dynamics and touch. I used to set up a lot more drums, but I realized I wasn’t playing them! I want to focus on what I’m actually playing and try to create a language. That might be part of why people are gravitating toward these videos.
MD: And is it also because the 16th-note pocket, which used to be as common as dirt, is now nowhere to be heard or seen, except in hip-hop as a programmed “flavor”?
Nate: That’s true. It’s kind of a throwback. There’s no one out there playing a minimal, ghost-note-filled pocket. Cats aren’t coming out of Omar Hakim and Steve Gadd. There’s a generational divide where some cats have checked that stuff, and some haven’t—they’re into the more chops-oriented drummers. Think about the Daft Punk record with Omar and James Genus, RandomAccessMemories. I was told Omar and James just showed up and played and came up with parts. That record reminded everyone of that feel. Like the “Get Lucky” track. J.R. Robinson is on the record too.
MD: I think of Bernard Purdie, Jabo Starks, Clyde Stubblefield, and David Garibaldi as the essential 16th-note groove-movers.
Nate: The influences for me were later: Omar and Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason. Still, [it’s] that same idea that considered touch and playing consecutive 16th notes on the hi-hat. People aren’t really doing that anymore. With José James we’ll start with one groove and then it will turn into something else. Eventually the 16th-note idea will come in. Especially if we’re playing something high energy, we get to a spot in a performance where we’re trading ideas. José does this digital scratching thing with his voice and I’m playing along with him. That’s where I play a lot of the 16th-note grooves.
Playing with José has opened up my drumming. We play basically the same set every night, and I have to find different ways of playing the music to keep it interesting.
MD: What is the Fearless Flyers project we see on Instagram? It looks like a takeoff of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, but it’s all dudes in sunglasses, not supermodels with guitars.
Nate: Fearless Flyers is Cory Wong and Joe Dart from Vulfpeck, then Mark Lettieri from Snarky Puppy on guitar. Jack Stratton produces Vulfpeck and Fearless Flyers. Every song is recorded in real time and every song gets a video. The videos make you feel like you’re in the room with the band. Jack took these ideas from Vulfpeck’s popular videos and put them together. So we did six songs, six videos. The first video got 5 million views. It’s crazy. Everything was based around what’s cool about each individual’s playing. They saw me playing the 16th-note grooves and wanted to focus on that for many of the tracks. We do an Afrobeat version of “Under the Sea,” which is kind of kitschy. It grooves.
MD: The music is funky, like an L.A. version of the Meters.
Nate: I like that the guys are plugged in to a history and a lineage. We checked out old videos of Al Jackson, and Steve Gadd with Grover Washington. There’s a connection to history.
MD: You were playing hi-hat-based pocket grooves during our first ModernDrummer interview. You’ve played a lot of straight-ahead jazz, including the Chris Potter and Dave Holland gigs. There’s DeJohnette-ish playing on Kinfolk. What’s the fascination with pocket grooves?
Nate: I don’t know! I’m as much a child of Jack DeJohnette and Art Blakey and Philly Joe and Jimmy Cobb as I am of Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks and Purdie and Gadd. And the jazz drummers I really like are the funkiest guys. I love Jimmy Cobb and feel he’s tremendously underrated. He isn’t a flashy player, but you’d be hard pressed to find better-feeling records than the ones he’s played on. Like KindofBlue, that’s amazing-feeling music. The quarter note is so strong on Jimmy’s records. In terms of a feeling, that’s what brought me into jazz. His drumming made me want to dance. Playing the pocket stuff is all about trying to get to that feeling. Before jazz, I was into Prince, Sting’s first band…that was my thing. I was always thinking about the groove first—before the chops.
Smoothing the Pocket
MD: Watching you play the pocket groove, it’s like a meditation for you; you’re deep into it. What’s your process for making the pocket work?
Nate: I’m thinking so much about consistency of sound and consistency of space. We live in the grid world, where everything is recorded on Pro Tools. But music felt better before Pro Tools. The music was breathing, there were human beings making it.
MD: The time wasn’t “perfect,” but you can hear the musicians.
Nate: You can hear the people, that’s where I’m at. I’m really thinking about each beat and each space between the beats. I’m singing it, kind of humming it to myself. I’m singing the kick and snare drum parts. I’m so focused on the sound and the space and making sure everything is consistent. I’m so wrapped up in sound when I play the pocket. When I do deviate and add stuff, I want to drift as far as I can without losing the time. It’s a process of being there and then letting go and coming back.
MD: Back in the late 1970s, there were many 16th-note hits, like Player’s “Baby Come Back,” Tower of Power’s “What Is Hip,” Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” Toto’s “Hold the Line” and “Georgy Porgy”…. The drummer had to maintain that 16th-note flow with the right hand on the hi-hat and the 2-and-4 backbeat. It’s like the motion of a wave. Is that a lost art?
Nate: Maybe so. I don’t see guys doing it. And if you do, it’s a two-handed 16th on the hi-hat. But playing one-handed 16th-note hi-hat creates a different sound, a different motion. At this point it’s not the thing in demand. I think of all the Barry White songs with Ed Greene. Great drummer. The way those 16th-note slow jams would breathe…and you could tell he was using one hand. Alphonse Mouzon. “Midnight Plane” by Ronnie Foster.
MD: Billy Cobham’s Spectrum album, with “Le Lis” and “Stratus.”
Nate: Talk about a guy who has a sound! Holy cow. That’s tough to do on the drums, have your own personality like that.
MD: And that’s what this is about for you. The way you’ve presented yourself, it’s unique and personal. You wear your heart on your sleeve both in your drumming and in how you’ve approached press. Even recording your parents for interludes about your family on Kinfolk is highly personal. That approach wouldn’t work with just any musician.
Nate: I’m always thinking: Would I want to hear this music? As a fan, would I want to hear this story? Do I care about this? Does it make sense in the narrative of the record to have interludes with my parents? If you can find a way to make listeners care about a story as much as the music, then you can really pull them in and give them a reason to invest.
MD: How do you make playing the 16th-note flow seamless and comfortable?
Nate: It’s something I’ve been doing a long time. When students ask, I go back to those marching band warm-ups, playing sequential exercises. Eight on each hand, or sixteen on each hand. Trying to accent the downbeats. You build this muscle memory, this technique where you’re letting the stick do some of the work. If I’m playing the [cadences] fast, I take advantage of the stick rebound. So there’s the main stroke, then I let the next stroke happen on its own. I find a way to negotiate it. So I’m not working so hard. And I’m using the shank of the stick on the hi-hat for most of the 16th-note sound. It depends on the tempo. If it’s slower I can get in there with the shank of the stick for that thick sound. That’s what Gadd did. He would open it up and get that really beautiful sound on the hi-hat. He’d also play with the butt of the stick on the snare. It was in his hands; he would get this snare drum sound that no one else could get.
I also really got into James Gadson, which comes in handy with José James doing the Bill Withers material. It’s hard to overstate the importance of James Gadson. He’s on all the great Bill Withers records and so many sessions. There’s something special about the way he plays the hi-hat. Bill Withers’ “Use Me” is about as “swunky” as it gets. There’s so much language in there, and I don’t know if a lot of younger drummers are really checking out those records. Younger drummers and R&B music fans are digging the pocket stuff because they haven’t heard it before. They’ve moved into Chris Dave and Eric Harland. Those guys know these older drummers, of course, but I’m not sure the younger drummers have put together all the dots.
MD: Are younger drummers coming out of Chris Dave? Ground zero would seem to be Dennis Chambers for the gospel-chops drummers and beyond.
Nate: I agree. Chambers is everywhere. And it’s certain Chambers recordings, like John Scofield’s LoudJazz. Those are like the holy grail. I’m not as big a disciple of Dennis, but you’d be hard pressed to name a more influential drummer. And Scofield’s StillWarm with Omar Hakim is an important influence for me. Weather Report’s DominoTheory, Sting’s TheDream of the Blue Turtles and Bring on the Night, all great records for Omar. And also his session stuff with Joe Sample—it’s all touch.
Students Then and Now
MD: What do most students want from you?
Nate: Pocket. First, we put the sticks away and listen to some music. I play James Gadson with Bill Withers, J.R. Robinson with Michael Jackson. Steve Gadd playing “Mister Magic” with Grover Washington. I’ll ask what they hear, and often they’ll notice the feel but they’re fixated on the drums and the 16th-note pocket. I refer them back to the music. Often they want to know how to do a beat, but it’s disconnected from the music. They want to know “how I do that thing in the video.” But the rest of the concert is me playing in a band! [laughs] It’s in the context of a live show. With José the zenith of a song can lead to a drum solo. That’s where the videos come from.
MD: When teaching pocket, do you instruct students on how to make the groove happen with and without a metronome?
Nate: Absolutely. I’ll set up a click track and we’ll play. I encourage the students to record themselves—which I always did. I have them play with and without the click. Nine times out of ten their time is more accurate with the click; but when they get off the click and just play, their personality comes out. How do you bridge that, express yourself with the click track? That’s the real challenge. And I always have students play along with records. Play along with drummers that have great time—where, even if they rush, the feel is right. If you get the feeling right, you’ll really be on to something.
MD: To what do you credit your consistency of sound and groove?
Nate: I credit a lot of my playing to marching band, symphonic band, learning to read music, and learning and practicing the rudiments every day. It’s helped me so much, and I rely on that stuff every day, even if it’s only five minutes. That makes me check in. I have to talk to the hands and make sure they’re on.
MD: Do you recall your marching band exercises?
Nate: I’d shed all the flam rudiments: flam accents, flam taps, pataflaflas, all at the same tempo. I’d alternate them—that forces you to focus on what your hands are playing. I would start soft and go really loud and then try to come back down. Make sure you can articulate all the rudiments no matter the dynamic level, so you can hear all the strokes. That’s the most important thing, to be able to clearly hear everything you’re playing, whether it’s triple piano or triple forte.
MD: At what tempo?
Nate: I would start around a quarter note equals 100 or 110. I’d shed triplets with flam accents, 16th notes with flam taps, or Swiss Army 8th triplets at that tempo. Then I’d displace the accents. That’s another way of training the hands. I studied StickControl, Haskell W. Harr’s Drum Method for Band and Orchestra—that was tough—and Ted Reed’s Syncopation. I still do this: start a click track, open up a method book, and sight-read sixteen bars of something. It opens up your brain. That’s how I reboot.
MD: Do you have a pre-gig warm-up?
Nate: I’ll do a marching band exercise called the Sprinkler. It’s eight 8th notes on each hand, then two bars of alternating 16th notes. I’ll start slowly and then go fast. Slow and loud, fast and soft. You can’t be on autopilot and play that.
Beating the Beast: Instagram
MD: Your Instagram popularity is impressive.
Nate: People will also post the videos on their YouTube accounts. I have tons of YouTube views, but I don’t have a channel! I’ve seen a compilation called Nate Smith Grooves. It’s five minutes of me playing a pocket, and a banner saying “Subscribe to my page.” Someone transcribed thirty-two bars of one of my José James video solos, and invited viewers to send them money for a transcription. I’ve thought about anonymously following one of these guys and buying the transcription, then pointing out to them how it’s wrong. Get them in some trouble. [laughs]
MD: What specific José James songs feature your 16th-note pocket?
Nate: One’s called “Park Bench People,” from an album called TheDreamer. The basis of the groove is Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.” We’ll play that groove and get into different permutations of 16th notes. It’s really developed into a thing with José, which audiences from London to Amsterdam to D.C. have really taken to. José’s Bill Withers record features me, keyboardist Kris Bowers, guitarist Brad Williams, and bassist Pino Palladino. He’s the dream bass player. He plays the part, then he’ll adlib something that will knock out everyone in the studio. What just happened!
“Intro: Wish You Were Here” Setting the stage.
“Skip Step” The funky true album opener levels the playing field with an odd-metered arrangement, dancing vocals, agitated guitar lines, and Smith’s hypnotic drumming.
“Bounce: pts I + II” Instantly morphs the mood, a breezy backbeat melded with serpentine guitar and roaming tenor saxophone.
“Mom: Postcards from Detroit/Floyd/Salem” An interlude with Nate’s mother retelling the family’s lineage in whispered tones.
“Retold” Simple and lovely; revolving piano, a heavenly vocal chorus, and gentle drums and saxophone paint a moment of bliss.
“Disenchantment: The Weight” Surrounded by strings, vocalist Amma Whatt recites
memories over Smith’s odd-metered snare drum marching beat, followed by a wide-open, triumphal pocket.
“Spinning Down” Dave Holland’s bass ushers in a mysterious and rhythmic instrumental.
“Pages” Glides like a ride in a hot-air balloon, with Nate’s bouncing pocket fully active, at full force. Gretchen Parlato provides the vocal.
“From Here: Interlude” A Steve Gadd–inspired groove.
“Morning and Allison” Down and dirty drive.
“Spiracles” A gentle rise.
“Small Moves: Interlude” P-Funk worthy.
“Dad: Postcards from Isaac Street” Nate’s father fills in more family history.
“Home Free” The thoroughly surprising and emotional closer.
MD: Kinfolk earned you a Grammy nomination. The improvisations, the compositions, some serious drumming, the flow—it’s all uniquely you, though some of the material is reminiscent of the funky cosmic organic thing George Duke did on the album TheAuraWillPrevail. There’s so much happening on the song “Skip Step,” for example—odd meters, polyrhythms….
Nate: I was thinking about Maurice White when we recorded and mixed “Skip Step.” He’s a huge influence on me, not only as a songwriter and as a musician, but how he made great records. I wanted everyone on Kinfolk to show their personality. A record like Duke’s BrazilianLoveAffair has so much personality. That’s the first George Duke record I ever heard. The first couple tunes with Brazilian percussion…what a great band on that record! And that feeling, it’s light but also thick.
MD: Did you envision Kinfolk as a journey?
Nate: I wanted it to feel like you were traveling a path, to give people this idea of what it feels like to be a journeyman musician. There’s an interlude with a cab driver in one song—he gives this great Beatitudes speech. Then there are the interludes with my parents. And the segues between songs…I wanted listeners to have the sense that each song was a brick in the road. I wanted the record to have an arc; it starts with the street noise and ends with a somber, soft piece.
MD: What’s the meter in “Skip Step”?
Nate: That’s 4/4 plus 3/4 plus 3/8, so 17/8. It’s divided in that way.
MD: “Spinning Down” is a kind of smoky, Herbie Hancock vehicle.
Nate: The minute I heard that bass line, I knew Dave Holland had to play it. That line was inspired by him, and I learned so much about composing and writing for a band from Dave. He really understood how to write for the quintet and big band I was part of. He wrote for personalities.
MD: Why did you use a marching-type groove in “Disenchantment”?
Nate: The lyric is somber, and there’s this feeling of carrying a burden. That marching band thing felt somber to me.
MD: On the album and live, you tune your kit to an almost 1970s sound: frequency-flat toms, taut sounds.
Nate: Most of my favorite records were recorded in the ’70s and early ’80s. It’s like osmosis. And when I do R&B or hip-hop production, the samples I use are from that era. They tend to speak a little more, there’s more impact in those sounds. I’ve always gravitated to that dry, gritty drum sound. The first drum sounds I ever sampled were from Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All. Sly Stone records like Fresh—whew! Talk about touch and tone, all that language Andy Newmark is playing on “In Time”—so great.
I have a theory. Guys like Clyde Stubblefield were playing small 18″ bass drums that were baffled with blankets and pillows. Clyde’s snare drum sound is tight, crisp. Not a lot of tone, but tons of impact. I play rimshots for the snare drum backbeat. I seem to live in that sound.
MD: “Spiracles” opens with a slow, watery, dreamy cymbal sound that really flows. How do you make that flow happen?
Nate: I try to think about the music. The thing about “Spiracles,” that’s originally from a 1999 Stereolab record, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. The changes are so pretty and nostalgic, it has this ’70s feel. I keep going back to the ’70s! That’s where the prettiest music was. Regarding the pocket and the ’70s, I guess I’m tapping into something people have forgotten about.
MD: “Home Free” is a lovely song, and the violin melody is unusual. It’s an open, slow groove, but perhaps a weird way to end a record?
Nate: I couldn’t think of anything that I’d want to hear after it. It felt like the closing song. And it’s also a very minimal moment. The band is fading out, the strings are holding a note, fade to black.
Come on, See the Show
MD: Who’s the audience for PocketChange, your Loop Loft digital and vinyl project released on your WaterBaby Music label?
Nate: It’s meant for producers and DJs on one hand, people who can take the loops, chop them up, sample them—whatever they want to do. And also people who just like to use drums. I think of Max Roach’s Drums Unlimited record—which is an inspiration for this, how Max played so melodically—and Jamire Williams’ Effectual, from last year. And anybody who is creative. This could be used for scoring films, for dance. I am really curious to see who uses it. I’ll have the bpms listed on the label so DJs can have a starting point.
MD: One track reminds me of a study in tom drops.
Nate: That’s “Dum Dum,” a deep house groove where the tom sounds are used as a hook or refrain.
MD: Is “Spress Theyself” a takeoff on “Express Yourself” by Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band?
Nate: Yes, as well as the N.W.A. version, which samples the song.
MD: “Warble” has some displacement. That’s unusual for a groove-themed release.
Nate: The title is about the shakiness of moving something over by one sextuplet; or making [the accent] early.
MD: “Big/Little Five” explores five.
Nate: I’ve always played odd-metered music with Dave and Chris, even with Ravi Coltrane. If you can make an odd meter groove, you’re on to something. I was thinking of 5/8 versus 5/4, then a larger phrase like 5/2. It’s like a wheel within the wheel.
Do Like Nate?
MD: Do you feel like an accidental Instagram star?
Nate: Yes. I didn’t see it coming. Musically, I get why people dig it and are sharing it. But I certainly didn’t set out to do it.
MD: So you don’t have any tips on how to repeat that?
Nate: Nope. Just share your work, share your process. People want to know. Instagram and Facebook are like scrolling talent shows.
• 5×14 Supraphonic snare
• 5×14 Classic Maple snare (left side)
• 8×12 Classic Maple tom
• 14×14 Classic Maple floor tom
• 16×16 Legacy Mahogany floor tom
• 14×20 Ludwig Legacy Mahogany bass drum
• 15″ K Light hi-hats
• 22″ Constantinople Bounce ride
• 22″ Constantinople Overhammered ride
• 17″ A Custom crash
Percussion: LP Basket Shaker and plastic Egg Shakers
Electronics: Sensory Percussion by Sunhouse triggers, 13″ MacBook Pro Retina, Ableton Live, Avid Pro Tools
Sticks: Vater Manhattan 7A, Wire Tap retractable wire brush, T7 mallet, Vintage Bomber bass drum beater
Heads: Evans G2 Coated batter on Classic Maple snare, Calftone batter on Supraphonic snare, Calftone tom and bass drum batters and Genera Reso bottoms