Music

Nate Smith: Kinfolk - Postcards from Everywhere

A veteran jazz drummer has produced a terrific collection that straddles jazz and contemporary soul without any of the compromise you expect. It's Glasper-esque... in the best way.


Nate Smith

Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere

Label: Ropeadope
US Release Date: 2017-02-03
UK Release Date: 2016-02-03
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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.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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