Jazz drummer Nate Smith comes into his own as a bandleader with a sleek strain of R&B and funk that showcases his improvisational elasticity | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

Jazz drummer Nate Smith comes into his own as a bandleader with a sleek strain of R&B and funk that showcases his improvisational elasticity 

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click to enlarge Nate Smith

Nate Smith

Jose Torres Garcia

Drummer Nate Smith has taken his time as a bandleader. Last year the 43-year-old musician dropped Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (Ropeadope), his second album and debut as a bandleader, which shows that his patience has yielded serious dividends. The record is a product of a superior musician and careful thinker who has absorbed ideas and assimilated them into his personal vision while tamping down his virtuosity (he takes only one solo, on “Spinning Down”). Over his impressive career Smith has worked with some of jazz’s most distinctive leaders, including bassist Dave Holland and saxophonists Chris Potter and Ravi Coltrane, where he plays deeply intricate music with lean precision and propulsive snap. But in his solo work, Smith streamlines things to focus on hypnotically soulful melodies and earthy, funky grooves. The end result feels closer to R&B than to jazz, but the meticulously tailored solos taken by members of his top-flight band—particularly saxophonist Jaleel Shaw—provide an elasticity that betrays their stylistic pedigrees. Kinfolk includes snippets of interviews Smith conducted with his parents about their lives, and he composed melodies to evoke elements of his youth, but even without that subtext the music has a life of its own. The two-part, irresistibly taut funk jam “Bounce” opens with slashing, tightly coiled lines by Shaw before suddenly shifting into a measured strut that cools down the vibe. “Disenchantment: the Weight” is one of several breezy ballads that feature the tangy, sensual singing of Amma Whatt, bolstered by the nimble electric bass of Fima Ephron (the not-so-secret weapon besides the drummer) and sweetened by lean string arrangements. Smith belongs to the same generation as pianist Robert Glasper, and he traffics in similar territory, but the former keeps a much tighter rein on his band, dispensing endless vamps and incorporating solos that go against the music’s smooth veneer. This evening the drummer performs with Ephron, Shaw, Whatt, keyboardist Jon Cowerd, and guitarist Brad Allen Williams.   v

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