Drummer Nate Smith has the kind of jazz credentials you can’t debate. He’s played with singer Betty Carter (alongside Miles Davis and Art Blakey, possibly the best eye for talent in jazz history), bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, John Patitucci, Ravi Coltrane, Nicholas Payton, Regina Carter, on and on it goes. Smith embodies taste and chops in one package, ideas to spare, and is certainly a drummer who is young enough to be a conduit for the new century’s pop music to get into the art form. Right now, he is touring with the singer Jose James, a jazz singer who also makes top-flight R&B with a hip-hop edge.
Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere draws on a wide range of Smith’s influences, background, and interests. It is one of those “jazz” records that probably wouldn’t have been possible until recently — a collection that has plenty of authentic, harmonically complex improvising but also uses soul grooves and vocals to forge a connection back to pop music. As on other recent records by Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Otis Brown III, and the Revive Music group, the pop/soul elements of Kinfolk are natural and flowing, not commercial calculations that seem grafted onto a jazz record to try to move units.
“Spiracles” is not the best thing in this collection, but it’s an excellent example of how Smith produces a seductive groove that works as a platform for engaging music. The hypnotic feel, set up by a syncopated drum beat, rubbery bass (Fima Ephron), and chiming keys (Kris Bowers), hosts a long-form melody shared by Jaleel Shaw’s soprano sax, Adam Rogers on guitar, and a synth programmed to sound like vibes. Shaw and Rogers spin smart leads. Nice.
“Bounce” has a clipped, shopping guitar figure from Jeremy Most that owes a debt to the Steve Coleman M-Base sound from the ‘90s, and the combination of Shaw’s alto sax and Chris Potter guesting here on tenor — a pair of horns that snakes around each other in “Part I” — is all strut and funk. “Part II” smoothes out the feel and lets Potter extend his creativity alone.
Smith gets his other famous employer in the action for “Skip Step”, which is a polyrhythmic workout that also uses the unique guitar of Lionel Loueke and the cool wordless vocals of Michael Mayo. This is a world music workout that puts your hips in motion; it’s not smooth jazz. Holland is more clearly in evidence on “Spinning Down”, which starts with his acoustic bass playing a funky phrase in 10/8 time. A bridge in 6/8 follows, which might make this seem like a complex-sounding music school exercise, but the opposite is true: the melody is beautiful and hummable (stated in unison by soprano sax and guitar), and Bowers gets a chance to shine on a rambling piano solo. Shaw and Loueke also blow, followed by a fabulous duet for Holland and Smith that may be the highlight of the program, all barely contained passion and fire.
That peak is followed by another, and maybe even better tune — the now-obligatory guest appearance by breathy, breathtaking singer Gretchen Parlato. In less than four minutes, “Pages” enchants, gets lit on fire, brings you to the height of what a great band, improvising, can do for your blood, then brings it back down again. Play it on repeat right away, because that’s what’s coming anyway.
There are two other vocal tracks featuring Amma Whatt, a distinctive soul singer from Brooklyn who absolutely seduces your ear on “The Disenchantment: The Weight”, bathed is a cool string arrangement and topped off with an adventurous Shaw solo, and on “Morning and Allison”, where she proves that hers is a voice you will remember. Whatt (a recent contestant on American Idol, it seems) also co-wrote these tunes. Her voice has just a touch of Macy Gray quirk, but it is a low soprano that also seems like it comes from Ella Fitzgerald by way of Lalah Hathaway.
Nate Smith probably doesn’t have the name recognition to put him beside Robert Glasper in the contest to see who best fuses jazz and 21st century soul music. Maybe that’s not his goal. But with Kinfolk he has created something personal and compelling, soulful enough for a late night in your living room but substantive enough to feel like a real jazz recording. Categories, as usual, be damned: this is wonderful music.