I first met fiddler Nate Leath in the spring of 2002 when he needed a guitarist to record a duo arrangement of "Out of Nowhere" with him. Having heard stories about his first place finish at the Galax Old Time Fiddler's Convention as well as his tremendous and precocious talent, I had considerable expectations for the meeting. When Nate arrived, his tie-dyed T-shirt, baggy pants and downy countenance immediately betrayed his youth. I wondered, "How is this hippie kid gonna play jazz?" Well, the answer came soon enough. With eyes closed and bow poised he counted off several tempos before settling on one, and indeed it was the perfect choice. Impressed by his discriminating attention to time, I was all the more eager to begin to play. After the count we began, I with my sparing comping and Nate with his statement of the theme; and what a statement it was. He rendered the melody with such offbeat accents and slurs that I at first assumed that his sense of time was faulty, impelling me to tighten up in concentration on the placement of the downbeat, Within several bars though, I realized that his grasp of time in general and swing in particular far exceeded his age. He wasn't simply stating the melody, he was interpreting it; so strong is both his familiarity with and, far more importantly, his feeling for the theme. Nate Leath fluidly manipulates melody and thereby breathes vitality into pieces considered hackneyed by many. In short, Nate's tremendous sense of time allows him simultaneously to drive the swing while playfully dancing about the downbeat. This rare skill attained by players two and three times his age is evidenced particularly on this album's renditions of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Limehouse Blues"
Indeed, Nate's firm grasp of swing is further propelled by the date's rhythm section, comprising Dave Wundrow on bass, Mike Shepherd on drums, and Steve Abshire on guitar. As if these seasoned local greats don't drive the music hard enough, versatile musician Danny Knicely digs the swing even deeper with his authoritative mandolin chucks and aggressive solos throughout, especially on the group's unique rendition of Earl Scrugg's "Foggy Mountain Special". This band swings like a metronome blessed with soul.
In addition to his profound sense of time, Nate has an uncanny familiarity with and tasteful execution of interesting intervals. All of the melodic statements in the solos logically begin on a note whose meaning is only fully realized and relished by the listener when it finds its final destination. He does not dazzle with flurries of technique (though his ability to do so sends most musicians back to the woodshed); no, his ideas proceed logically. Nate milks a solo with a great sense of composition. Each solo holds clear demarcations of beginning, middle and end: solos begin with a patience that enables the rhythm section to breath and tune into the development he has in store. They then build to a fiery climax that imperceptibly swoops to a landing that sets the stage for the ideas of the next soloist. Note in particular his solo on "Out of Nowhere", "Blue Skies", and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore". At an early age where most musicians feel compelled to force-feed their technique-based notions into the ears of the fellow bandmates and audience alike, Nate is a team player: his maturity enables him to work for the music. the final product. a product that he knows must first be a work of beauty both subtle and driving.
And this leads to his selection of tunes and format for the date. The tunes can be divided into standards and originals. The standards are all classics: Ellington, Irving Berlin, Phillip Braham, Edward Heyman, and yes, Earl Scruggs. Still though, there are two interesting original collaborations by Nate and Dann Knicely on the album, namely "Eurydice" and "Mojo Espresso". Each of these capitalizes on the unconventional instrumentation of the date. Indeed, the wonderful trombone work of John Jensen coupled with the drive of Danny's mandolin lend the recording a traditional New Orleans feel that works wonderfully with the selection of the terrific gems of 1930's American music.
To close out these observations on this new, exciting and innovative work by fiddle prodigy Nate Leath, I must propose my nomination for the session's most complex and subtle work of intense beauty: Mike Shepherd's original "Scottish Love Song", subtitled "Jessica's Theme. To my mind this tune along with the album's other originals and traditional ties qualifies it as a great new work of art from a great new talent. God Bless you Nate. Keep documenting your growth for us. God knows we're listening.
-Carey T. Smith