Back in the Pocket

Ace drummer Nate Smith extends his “Pocket Change” solo album series and his influence.

Would you believe that Nate Smith’s new solo drum album may be the clearest evidence yet of his gift for collaboration?

It’s quite a claim, given how busy the Chesapeake-born, recently re-minted Richmonder stays and how prominent his colleagues typically are. He’s worked with leading lights in the jazz world — Pat Metheny, Dave Holland and Chris Potter among them. He’s been at the kit for rock goddess Brittany Howard’s last two albums, and he’s the beating heart of the impossibly tight, irresistibly funky Vulfpeck offshoot group, the Fearless Flyers. He even co-wrote and co-produced for Michael Jackson.

Yet with his “Pocket Change” series of solo drum albums, which double as sample packs, Smith manages to cross a chasm of imagination to collaborate with musicians who aren’t even there — whose art is not yet a twinkle in artists’ eyes. “I wanted it to really reel people in,” he says of the second installment, “Pocket Change 2: Mad Currency,” which dropped in December, and whose corresponding transcription book began shipping Wednesday, May 22.

Devoted listeners of the drummer’s output will find plenty to enjoy by simply queueing up “Mad Currency” and pressing play. It was Max Roach’s 1966 “Drums Unlimited” LP that opened Smith’s eyes to the possibilities of solo drum recordings. “He’s such a great storyteller on the instrument,” Smith says, “and he understands that there’s a call-and-response in the music.”

While “Drums Unlimited” interweaves solo pieces and traditionally arranged hard-bop tracks, Smith’s “Pocket Change” albums dispense with other instruments entirely. Yet Smith ably carries forward the torch of Roach’s knack for narrative. “I want it to be interesting from the beginning to the end of each piece,” he affirms. “They start with some kind of a theme, there’s a variation in there, a deviation from the theme, there’s a return to the theme and it climaxes somewhere … I felt like if I was consistent with that, the people who would want to hear it would find it if I shared it.”

 

Listening is just one way to interact with the “Pocket Change” material. Those who head to the Yurt Rock website to purchase the 24-bit, 48 kHz resolution drum loop pack can practice along to Smith’s recordings, flip them to make hip-hop beats, choreograph to them or refashion them to soundtrack animation. Smith was especially struck by a tap dancer who detected and mirrored subtle rhythmic modulation while performing to one track. “I had never seen a tap dancer do that before,” Smith says. “And maybe when he heard me play it, he was like, ‘Man, I didn’t know you could do that on the drums, so let me try to transpose it to what I do.’ I really dug that.”

Collaboration from afar

The idea for the first “Pocket Change” album came about in the aftermath of Smith’s 2017 album, “Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere,” a Grammy-nominated milestone that involved a full band, big studios and guest musicians. For a change of pace, he put the question out to his socials: “If I were to release a solo dum record of just grooves, kinda dirty, raw-sounding drums, who would be into it?” That call was greeted with an enthusiastic response. “There were people who just wanted to see me play the drums and see it up close and hear it up close,” he says.

His one regret about the tracking that led to the first “Pocket Change” collection: “I didn’t have any video of the session,” he says. “Music is becoming more and more a visual art form. We associate what we see with what we hear in a way that we haven’t really before.”

Hourglass Sessions to the rescue. “Mad Currency” was captured at two Richmond studios: Minimum Wage Recording and Spacebomb Studios. Having taken note of the live video platform’s work with another Richmond-based, jazz-fluent success story, Butcher Brown, Smith invited co-founder and director Tyler Scheerschmidt to document the recording process. The director’s footage was key during the “Mad Currency” rollout, giving the drummer’s followers an up-close glimpse of the very moments in which tracks like “Wisk” and “Run-On” came to be. “It just made sense to do the audio and video capture simultaneously at these two iconic-looking places,” Smith points out. “They’re two hidden gems, I think, in the studio world.”

Butcher Brown was also a catalyzing force when it came to Smith’s interest in Spacebomb. “I’d been hearing nothing but good things,” Smith says. His connection to Minimum Wage and its owner, Lance Koehler, dates back further to sessions that took place in the early 2000s, just after Smith’s first stint living in Richmond. “I loved how he captured the energy of the drums, especially,” Smith notes of Koehler, whose own drumming and production have long elevated recordings by No BS! Brass Band. “Even after all this time, I never forgot it,” Smith says.

 

After graduating from James Madison University with a bachelor of science in media arts and design in 1997, Smith enrolled in graduate study at Virginia Commonwealth University — a fateful posting, given that it’s where he met English double bass icon Dave Holland, who was serving as artist-in-residence. Smith and Holland found immediate chemistry. “We got along from the first note,” Smith says. A 2001 move to New York City and an extended stint as part of Holland’s ensemble followed. “Dave changed my life,” Smith says. “Dave is a very sweet person, a real sweetheart of a guy, and he loves the energy of playing with younger musicians. That was the beginning of it.”

Setting the pace

Smith’s gig with Holland marked a beginning in more ways than one. Mentorship among jazz players is cyclical, and just as Smith was leveling up and learning from a legend, drummers even younger than Smith were taking notice and drawing inspiration. Two of them were Butcher Brown’s own Corey Fonville and VCU grad Billy Williams, who has traveled the world providing the pulse for the likes of Raul Midón, Justin Kauflin and Larry Willis. Both Fonville and Williams grew up the same Hampton Roads region Smith hailed from, and the two shared a drum teacher at Norfolk music store Audio, Light and Music. It was there that they learned about Smith’s rising star status, which changed how they looked at their own career trajectories.

“Being that we don’t have [many] musicians going to New York like that coming from Virginia, it was a big deal,” Fonville says.

“I’m from Virginia Beach originally,” Williams says. “It’s not necessarily known as a jazz haven, so to know that the drummer in one of the biggest jazz groups in the world was from my area kind of blew my mind.”

Though their their paths leading away from AL&M diverged, both Fonville and Williams eventually struck up correspondence with Smith that’s continued to this day. “Our relationship just constantly grew,” Fonville says. “He was one of the few musicians that came from home that still kept his ears to the streets of what was happening back in Virginia.”

In addition to positive energy and encouragement, Smith has imparted business acumen that’s helped Butcher Brown along their own rise to prominence outside of Virginia. “He’s the one who told us how to set up a business bank account, how to get an LLC, how to save money as a business working in the music industry, putting money away — stuff that no one else was telling us,” Fonville says. “That was such valuable information. These are things that will keep Butcher Brown moving.”

Smith has provided Williams with a guiding musical light — “his playing is the perfect marriage of having everything from a technical standpoint that a drummer could dream of having, but with a musical intuition that’s something that only God can give to certain people” — as well as steadfast counsel. “If I reach out to him and I have a question, or just to say what’s up, he’s always been the same consistent cat,” Williams says. “He’s world-renowned, but he’s just like a homeboy in that sense. I’ve always appreciated that about him.”

“Having Nate around in Richmond just looks good for the city,” says drummer Corey Fonville of Butcher Brown, an international touring group from Richmond. Photo credit: Tyler Scheerschmidt

Returning to the River City

Smith recently rediscovered his own appreciation of Richmond as a home base. In 2020, he moved from New York City, which he’d decided he needed a breather from, to Nashville with an eye toward studio work during the pandemic. But he was struck with a feels-good-to-be-back sensation while in Richmond in spring 2021, when he was invited to perform with pianist Jason Moran in conjunction with the VMFA exhibit, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.” “It was my first time really hanging out in Richmond since I had left 20 years before that,” he says. “I remember thinking… ‘This might be a nice place to call home,’ in a way that I hadn’t felt when I left, because I was so restless to see what was out in the world.”

The move also brings Smith closer to family still living in Hampton Roads, and to a community in which his talents, travels and successes are points of pride. Corey Fonville sees that “it helps give a lot of younger musicians an idea that ‘Hey, you can do this and be from a small town … As long as you got the skill and the work ethic and all that other stuff, you can really go.’”

“Having Nate around in Richmond just looks good for the city,” he adds.

“It feels really great,” Smith says of his old-new environs. “At this point, I feel like I’m working everywhere else and just living here, which is very cool. Obviously, when I’m around, I’m going to continue to work and be creative, but it’s been really great to come home to Richmond.”

 

It’s already had an impact for Dave Pierandri, drummer for local alt-country outfit Chris Leggett & the Copper Line. Pierandri had an opportunity to meet and thank Smith while the two were waiting to board a flight back to Virginia from the 2023 Newport Jazz Festival. Discovering Smith’s music — particularly the funk of the Fearless Flyers, whose latest EP landed in February — was an early turning point for Pierandri’s progression at the kit. “He was one of these first guys where I was studying gear and technique, and I’m like, ‘How is he getting his ride to shimmer that way?’”

Pierandri is among the droves who keep a close eye on Smith’s Instagram. The platform has been an engine for the latter’s transition from sideman to drum guru to producer and bandleader, and his feed has a distinctly conversational feel, given his willingness to answer questions and provide specifics. “He’s got a lot of content out there, and a lot of really good content that makes it accessible and interesting to somebody who’s a nerd about that,” Pierandri says. “Let people’s fandom breed good curiosity and further the art of what you’re doing.”

Whether Smith is sharing knowledge via socials, providing personal consultation from afar or creating asynchronous collaborative tools like “Pocket Change 2: Mad Currency,” his sphere of influence continues to grow — even as he rejoins a tight-knit community.

To hear and purchase “Pocket Change 2: Mad Currency,” visit waterbabymusic.bandcamp.com. To purchase its corresponding sample pack, visit yurtrock.com. The “Mad Currency” transcription book can be pre-ordered from natesmithdrums.com. For more information about Smith’s upcoming performances, visit natesmithdrums.com/events.  

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