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Drummer Nate Smith arranges funky grooves with strings attached

Nate Smith
Cory Dewald
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Cory Dewald
Nate Smith

If you are a fan of jazz, or groove for that matter, then you're probably acquainted with the artistry of Nate Smith. Whether it's with the bass master Dave Holland or funk supergroup The Fearless Flyers, the copious joy felt from those projects should in no small part be attributed to this drummer (and his odd time signatures).

Over the last decade, mostly with his band Kinfolk, Smith has really spread his wings and amplified his voice, especially as a composer. "I am kind of incapable of having small ideas," he explains. "I guess that's just my thing: I need as much sound as possible."

As we learn in this episode, those big ideas were first developed in his childhood home in Chesapeake, Va., where his father always made sure there was music booming; George Benson, Grover Washington and Quincy Jones were all in heavy rotation, captivating a grade-school-aged Smith.

"It wasn't just the beats and the energy on the records, but it was the harmony and the arrangements and the textures," Smith says. "Even at an early age I was listening to that. There was something about it that felt magical to me."

Nate Smith and KINFOLK with members of the Memphis City Orchestra
/ NPR
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NPR
Nate Smith and KINFOLK with members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

Smith, now 48, still holds tight to all the infectious grooves and larger-than-life ideas of his youth. Here, for us, he brings them to life for a special concert featuring his sextet Kinfolk and members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, coming together for the first time at the Crosstown Theater in Memphis, Tenn.

(Once you've listened to this episode, be sure to watch the premiere of our Nate Smith + Kinfolk+ Strings video. It features even more music from this special concert not heard on the radio program.)

Nate Smith on drums at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, Tennessee
/ NPR
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NPR
Nate Smith on drums at Crosstown Arts in Memphis, Tenn.

Musicians:

Nate Smith, drums, arrangements; Jaleel Shaw, alto and soprano saxophone; Brad Allen Williams, guitar; Fima Ephron, bass; John Cowherd, piano; Amma Whatt, vocals; Marcin Arendt, Marisa Polesky, Jessica Munson, Yennifer Correia, violin; Beth Luscombe, Mario Williams, viola; Mark Wallace, Kimberly Patterson, cello; Sam Shoup, conductor.

Set List:

(All music written by Nate Smith unless otherwise noted)

  • Street Lamp 
  • Morning and Allison  (Nate Smith, Amma Whatt)
  • Signs of Life: Secret Agents of Weathering
  • Rambo: The Vigilante 
  • Skip Step 
  • Pages  (Nate Smith, John Gordon, Amma Whatt)
  • Credits:

    Writer and Producer: Sarah Geledi; Host: Christian McBride; Concert engineers: Daniel Lynn and Dustin Reynolds; Mix: Neil Tevault; Episode mix: Ron Scalzo; Producer: Alex Ariff; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Vice President of Visuals and Strategy at NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Special thanks to Jenny Davis, Jazmin Miller and the team at Crosstown Arts in Memphis.

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Sarah Geledi left her job in advertising in Montreal to pursue a career in music in New York City. She fulfilled that mission, producing content for the JAM Festival at WBGO, segments for The Checkout, and programs for WWOZ and PRI's Afropop Worldwide. She also served as a producer for NYC Winter Jazzfest before landing the "job of her dreams," producing radio for Jazz Night in America.