In some ways New Orleans has a reputation for being a tough nut for outsiders to crack. Considering our reaction to the influx of transplants in recent years, it would be easy to assume locals are hostile to newcomers in general. Such an assumption would be incorrect. New Orleans may be hostile to outsiders who wish to impose their ways on her or treat her traditions like some kind of fad, but this city has a way of embracing people who embrace her with the right intentions. Those who wish to contribute to the culture are always more welcome than those who wish to change it.
The men of Naughty Professor fall squarely into the former camp. Though all six of them hail from far-flung parts of the country, each came to New Orleans with an appreciation for its rich musical history and a desire to learn from it. With that respect for the city’s music scene came a yearning to carve their own place in it, as well as an understanding of the hard work that was needed to do that.
“It was Charlie Parker who said ‘If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,’” explains alto and baritone saxophonist Nick Ellman. “I think that’s kind of why we started the band, so we could become a part of everything since we were all so excited by what the city had to offer. We called it Naughty Professor because we were in school studying music, but we wanted to live it.”
That school was Loyola, where Ellman, guitarist Bill Daniel, bassist Noah Young, tenor saxophonist Ian Bowman and trumpeter John Culbreth met during their freshman year in 2010 (original drummer Danny Milojevic was a childhood friend of Ellman’s from Chicago). By the end of their first semester, the band had already played a handful of gigs, though it took a little longer for the project to find some semblance of direction. They even experimented with a singer before settling on the instrumental sound that would define their first two studio albums and the bulk of their live output.
“The early days were about half covers and half originals,” says Ellman. “Eventually we realized we were most excited about writing songs, so we started focusing on that. Mahogany [Medlock] was a great singer and a good friend, but we started writing all these instrumental songs and realized we wanted keep rolling with that.”
It was during these days that the band developed its democratic approach to songwriting, with each member contributing tunes or ideas that would then be fleshed out by the rest of the group. While certain people took the lead on certain songs, no one person was ever in charge of the whole thing. What bound the disparate ideas together was a commitment to technical proficiency, and a shared belief that their music should be both intellectually engaging and capable of putting people on the dancefloor.
“That first year a lot of us found out who Snarky Puppy was and there was—some of us like to play this down—but there was a change in the music we were writing after we got turned on to bands like them and Kneebody,” notes Young. “When we first started we were playing more in the funk realm of things. Then some of these other groups opened our minds to what a loud, danceable band could be.”
“We play at bars where people have to groove and be involved,” adds Daniel. “A lot of our gigs need that type of attention, but then at the same time, for us to stay interested, it has to be further into outer space. The pull of those two things is what leads our music.”
Naughty Professor’s commitment to instrumental music was further solidified when the band amicably parted ways with Milojevic in 2012, bringing on friend and fellow Loyola student Sam Shahin to replace him on drums. Shahin, who had studied under New Orleans icon Johnny Vidacovich, was a talented player with a vigorous work ethic, and his presence brought another level of intensity to the project.
“Sam is such a strong drummer,” says Young. “He’s such a monster and he was able to bring more life to our music. Once we got him it felt like it was an appropriate time to really become an instrumental act.”
“He proved himself in that first rehearsal too,” adds Culbreth. “When he came in he already knew all of the songs and all of his parts just from studying our EP. We don’t have simple songs either, so it was clear he was in it.”
“I joined in the summer of 2012, and by then they had basically written a full album,” Shahin recalls. “My first gig was at Tipitina’s for Free Fridays a few weeks later, and we recorded [their first full-length album] Until The Next Time almost immediately.”
With their lineup and their vision now in order, Naughty Professor began branching out beyond the confines of the Crescent City. Weekend outings to nearby markets like Pensacola, Jackson and Houston gave the band their first taste of the road, while allowing them to continue honing their skills as students in the Loyola music program. It was a balance that served them well as they came into their own as working musicians.
“One thing that has helped us stay together so long is that we had this incubation period in school that allowed us to have a support system while we focused on our music,” explains Culbreth. “It gave us a solid foundation that served us well by the time we had to go into the real world and find real gigs. There was a natural progression that made it easy for us to pull the trigger on this thing after we graduated.”
That trigger was pulled in earnest during the summer of 2013, when the band piled into Daniel’s Subaru and headed to Colorado for their first real tour. The music gods didn’t let things go according to plan, of course. Empty rooms were more or less expected, but the stalled engine was a complete curveball. Fortunately, their friends The Revivalists had recently abandoned an old tour van in nearby Vail, and all Naughty Professor had to do was pick it up (easier said than done, but that’s a long story).
If Colorado was a crossroads for the band, then the path was chosen when they bought that van. As Young explains, “It was our first real expense. With the monthly insurance, we now had a bill we needed to pay and that meant we had to step it up.”
And step it up they did. With school now mostly behind them, the members of Naughty Professor could devote their full energies to the band. The writing process intensified, and their first deal with a booking agency led to tours through the East Coast, Southeast and parts of the Midwest. Within two years, they had scored their first spot at Jazz Fest, headlined New York City’s famed Blue Note Jazz Club, opened for their heroes Snarky Puppy and put out a second full-length album, Out on a Limb.
Through all of this, the guys in Naughty Professor never strayed from the democratic songwriting and decision-making style that kept them united in process and in purpose. Everyone didn’t see eye to eye all of the time—it probably wouldn’t be healthy if they did—but there was never reason to doubt anyone’s commitment, intentions or musical ability.
“I’ve probably been in fifteen bands in my life and a lot of them have barely lasted to the first gig,” says Young. “So there’s something about this combination of people that makes us a functional group.”
“Everybody’s focused, everybody’s excited and everybody brings their own energy to the group,” adds Daniel. “But if one of us has a deficiency, we’re always there to pick the other guy up. We make up for each other’s weaknesses in a really special way.”
Despite the supportive relationship these six men have nurtured over the years, one of their biggest breakthroughs came when they looked outside the confines of Naughty Professor. While opening for Galactic in Brooklyn, the band was introduced to Jurassic 5 rapper and frequent Galactic collaborator Chali 2na. This fruitful encounter in the fall of 2015 would convince them to pursue something they had given up years earlier: working with vocalists.
Forging an Identity
“Everyone wants to be big time, trying to outshine. Everyone wants to be a leader, ain’t nobody listening,” guest artist Cole DeGenova sings on “Mirrors,” the opening track off Naughty Professor’s forthcoming collaborative album Identity. “Give the people what they want, give the people what they need,” he continues. “Give the people what they want, but give them something real.”
That might seem like a good observation—and perhaps even good advice—but for Naughty Professor those lines are more like a statement of intent. When no one takes the lead and everyone listens, a band can truly become the sum of its parts. When the parts are six relentlessly creative individuals with unique ideas and complete control over their instruments, the sum can be quite impressive.
However, what’s impressive to music critics and jazz musicians isn’t always accessible to a wider audience, and that’s where the second part of DeGenova’s words comes into play. Naughty Professor has always straddled a line between funky grooves that keep audiences moving and exploratory arrangements that keep the band’s members on their toes—six musicians who are each capable of show-stopping solos when the times calls for it doesn’t hurt either, but that’s just lagniappe.
“Working with vocalists allows us to write simpler and more accessible music, but I think it still feels very honest and it feels like what we want to be doing,” says Young. “In the past it felt like what we wanted to do was go into outer space or do something crazy even if we weren’t sure people would connect with it. So it’s been really cool to be able to focus our efforts on something we think is more palatable in general.”
That’s not to say Identity is a pop record. Not by a long shot. Songs like the David Shaw (The Revivalists) collaboration “Stray” may take a more musically simplistic route, but the album’s seven vocal tracks touch on a variety of styles. From the laid back hip-hop of “Sugar Coat” (featuring Chali 2na and Ivan Neville) to the captivating progressive jazz of “Through It All” (with Sasha Masakowski and Cliff Hines), Identity is a record that refuses to hold back.
“We really did want to focus on making it a collaborative project and not just us with extra sugar,” says Shahin. “It was important to us for every voice to carry.”
Identity works so well because Naughty Professor’s ethos of musical consensus-building, in which each member sets aside their ego in service of the sound, was extended to the guests who came along for the ride. The goal wasn’t for the band to simply create space for these new elements to exist, but to incorporate them as equal parts of the whole. Over the course of a few marathon sessions at New Orleans’ Music Shed Studios and Parlor Recording Studio, they did just that. Mutual respect and shared vision was the name of the game, and it shines through on the final product.
“One of the underlying themes throughout the making of this record was trust,” recalls Ellman. “We put a lot of trust in the guests we brought in. With some of them, for instance Sasha and Chali 2na, we didn’t even get into a room with them until the day before we recorded. But we wanted what everyone could bring to the table, and we trusted that they would do it. That’s why we worked with them.”
This mentality inspired some of the guests to look beyond their own contributions. Dave Shaw, Dexter Gilmore (of Sexy Dex & the Fresh) and Cole DeGenova all front their own projects, and each has a moment in the spotlight on Identity. But when it came time to pass the mic during their session at the Music Shed, these frontmen were having so much fun they couldn’t help but stick around as backing vocalists for the others.
“The beauty of collaborating is that you get things you don’t expect,” says Shahin. “There’s no reason to exclude spontaneity. If somebody wants to get in there and do something, then get your ass in there. Let’s do it!”
The guests brought more than just vocals to the table, too. Seven of the album’s tracks feature singers, but the other five find Naughty Professor broadening their instrumental sound with additional players whose talents feel right at home. Lettuce trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom is a force to be reckoned with on “Without a Trace,” while Jason Butler’s keys glide smoothly below the surface before bursting forth to take center stage on “Do You Like Dragons.” The same can be said of Mike Dillon’s vibes and Cliff Hines’ swirling guitar riffs on “Venison Poetry,” a tune that ebbs and flows with unbridled confidence. Then there’s “Funk 4 Lunch,” a brass onslaught featuring Ed Lee, Julian Gosin, Erion Williams and Paul Robertson of the Soul Rebels that should put all your doubts about combining power trios with seven-piece horn sections to rest.
Another important contribution came from Qmillion, the Los Angeles–based mixer known for his Grammy-winning work with cutting edge jazz artist Robert Glasper. The collaborative nature of Glasper’s 2012 album Black Radio had a powerful influence on Naughty Professor, and the band was excited to work with one of the men behind it. Results were apparent right off the bat.
“Working with Qmillion was one of the coolest things about this project,” says Young. “I love the way those Glasper albums sound, and as soon as we heard him mix one of our songs it was like, ‘Holy shit, we can sound this modern.’ It sounded current. It sounded like what people want to hear. He definitely took it to the next level.”
Creating music with so many people they respect so immensely was an utter delight for the guys in Naughty Professor. It was the kind of thing they dreamed about when—unbeknownst to one another—they each left their homes to pursue music in New Orleans. After years of hard work and hustling, they had developed reputations as talented players, ambitious songwriters and one of the tightest units in town. Who doesn’t want to play with that?
“The richness of the music culture here and the history behind it is what drew me to New Orleans,” says Bowman. “This city is so inclusive, and it’s given us the opportunity to play with so many musicians that we have a lot of love and respect for. That’s where we were coming from when we were making this album, and we had a great time doing it.”
Nevilles? Masakowskis? The Soul Rebels Brass Band? That’s as New Orleans as it gets. This place is inclusive all right, but that kind of inclusiveness doesn’t just fall into anyone’s lap. That kind of inclusiveness is earned by musicians who come to this city and elevate the culture instead of simply regurgitating it. Therein lies the beauty of Naughty Professor. They learned from New Orleans, they cut their teeth on New Orleans, they live, work and thrive in New Orleans, but they don’t quite sound like anything else in New Orleans.
And their fans, who routinely show up in droves to see them at venues like the Maple Leaf or Blue Nile, wouldn’t want it any other way. Even their out-of-town admirers, many of whom were drawn to them by the “New Orleans” label, like the fact that they broaden the idea of what that label means. If they came expecting Dixieland rhythms or endless Meters-style jams, then they were pleasantly surprised when they got a forward-thinking ensemble with enough groove to wring funk moves out of a jazz crowd instead.
“We all feel that music is a language, and it doesn’t necessarily have to have words to still be a language,” says Ellman. “Some people don’t see it that way, but for us it’s never been like that. It’s always been about writing what we genuinely feel and giving that to people. We didn’t put any priority on the vocal tunes or non-vocal tunes for the new record. It’s all just music to us.”
Those vocal tunes are still an integral part of Identity, and as such they’ll need to be played in the live arena. It’s a situation that will require some changes to Naughty Professor’s touring machine, but they aren’t changes the band is unprepared to make. In fact, they already hit the road with Chali 2na and Sasha Masakowski last fall, and recent shows in New Orleans have featured appearances by many of their Identity collaborators. Next up is a run of dates with Cole DeGenova in February and March, while a second appearance at Jazz Fest is scheduled for the spring. After that, things are up in the air. But if one thing is certain, it’s that these six guys will continue to stay true to their vision.
“Everything will be done on a case-by-case basis, and we will continue to play a wide variety of vocal and instrumental tunes from the album with whatever friends and artists may be available to us at any given time,” Shahin says. “We will not be phasing out the music that is entirely instrumental and true to our original identity.”
Identity is a funny thing. At the end of the day, it’s entirely our own. Yet that doesn’t stop others from telling us what to do or who we ought to be. It doesn’t stop many of us from giving in to those demands either. Most people do it all the time. It goes without saying that the most intriguing artists are almost always the ones who ignore these outside pressures and let their own hearts do the creating. For Naughty Professor, it’s the only way worth doing things.
“We don’t really approach music from a stylistic standpoint. We approach it from a certain kind of mentality,” Bowman declares. “And one of the big things is freedom. Even if somebody writes a tune, they give everyone else the freedom to interpret the parts that they’ve written in a way that makes sense. When we’re doing it live, we give people the freedom to play what they want, when they want. At the same time, within that freedom, there’s also fair amount of structure. A lot of time is spent hashing out those details.”
“No matter who writes the song,” Ellman adds, “it doesn’t become a Naughty song until everyone puts their spin on it in a different way.”