Nathaniel Smith – Nathaniel Smith Quartet (2010)

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by S. Victor Aaron

Missoula, Montana’s own Nathaniel Smith has had a career as a jazz drummer and composer that took him from a mountain valley in the Rockies eastward to Appleton, Wisconsin’s Lawrence University (where Smith got to perform with the visiting Dave Holland and Maria Schneider), briefly west to San Francisco to study with percussionist Michael Spiro, and finally to New York City, where he undertook his graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music. Though Smith later got to work with luminaries like Steve Slagle, Cecil Bridgwater, Dave Liebman and even Daryl Hall, it’s his association with Liebman via a composition class that gave him a lot of his direction on that career. Since being out of school, Smith had worked on leading, composing and playing the drums in and around the NYC scene for a number of years before going into the studio with a backing group he’s led and/or played alongside with for several years. The resultant recordings are now out, a collection simply titled Nathaniel Smith Quartet

Quartet is Smith’s carefully honed debut album, culling together the talents of guitarist Jostein Gulbrandsen (guitar), Mark Anderson (bass) and the red-hot tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon into an integrated unit interpreting five songs by Smith and the remaining two by Gulbrandsen.

His loosely tethered cymbal work—whether it’s steady tapping, brushwork or gentle crashes—do much to set the tone for each song while leaving Irabagon and Gulbrandsen with full rein to set its character. Thus, Smith knows how to lead from behind the kit in a way that allows the front guys to flourish. As the primary soloist, Irabagon, a former classmate of Smith’s, gets the most attention. Though this album was recorded in 2007 before his profile had raised considerably in the following years, Irabagon shows why he’s become such an in-demand saxophonist. He so ably plays agitated in an outer orbit around the melody on open-ended cuts like “Daybreak Then Dusk,” then pours out a sackful of soul on gently swinging waltz of “Shadow Puppet.” Though an accomplished accompanist, Gulbrandsen gets his licks in as well. His thoughtful Rosenwinkel-styled lines often come to fore, especially on his own, well-constructed composition “Return Of The Bear.” Smith allows himself few solos, the most notable moment occurring in “Travishmockery,” where he shows off some nifty brush work (Anderson solos here too, in a bluesy, efficient manner).

However, Smith is not a “cut loose” kind of guy, and percussional fireworks is not what you’ll get from Nathaniel Smith Quartet because that’s not what’s intended. What you will get are some very capable musicians playing solidly written modern jazz pieces with some great interaction and a few sizzling solos. You can’t say that about too many jazz debut records, but Nathaniel Smith’s firm first step forward as a recording artist bodes well for the steps he takes from there.

Nathaniel Smith Quartet went on sale last month, courtesy of Fresh Sound New Talent Records. Visit Smith’s website here.

Purchase: Nathaniel Smith – Nathaniel Smith Quartet (soon to be available also on iTunes)

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