It’d be unfair to categorize Naughty Professor as a mere backing band on their latest set, since they’ve already got three fantastic instrumental albums under their belt (two studio, one live), not to mention what was probably tens of thousands of miles of road work to become among the finest jazz-funk bands in New Orleans. (Stop for a second and think about what a high bar that is to clear.)
Their fourth full-length album, however, features guest vocalists and musicians on every single track in an effort to show off their musical prowess—and yet they’re trying to blend all these excursions together into one singularity. (Why else would you name it Identity?) What’s remarkable is not that they pull it off with so much experience already under their belt, but that they manage to do it with what is arguably the cream of the crop of NOLA’s best recent transplants, few of whom have gotten the national recognition they deserve.
Except for Jurassic 5’s Chali 2na guest-rhyming on two tracks and Ivan Neville singing on one, these are all hungry upstarts and shadowy vets—not just a class move but a smart one in fueling the fire of what Naughty Fess does every night. Everyone here has something to prove, whether it’s Chicago neo-soulster Cole DeGenova, lo-fi psych-soul guitarist Dexter Gilmore, jazz chanteuse Sasha Masakowski (finally getting her national notices), lead singer David Shaw of the Revivalists, Eric “Benny” Bloom of Lettuce on trumpet augmenting their already formidable horn section—or speaking of which, the brash brass fury of the closer, “Funk 4 Lunch,” where the Soul Rebels finish blurring the line between funk and Crescent City Jazz forever.
Overall, it sounds like the world’s most progressive R&B album, and Naughty Professor manages to make it all of a piece. How do they pull it off? One, by soloing behind big fat vocal hooks, as they do behind Ivan on “Sugarcoat”; by doubling the horn section with the more jazzy vocal runs, like what they do behind Sasha on “Through It All”; or by heading off into an entirely different mood in what would normally be the funk bridge, which is where the instrumentals like “Funk 4 Lunch” come into play. And though they keep the structure a little simpler on the vocal numbers, there are several killer instrumentals here to back up their street cred, like the straight fusion of “Venison Poetry,” featuring the vibes of Garage A Trois’ Mike Dillon, and “Do You Like Dragons?” where jazz-gospel session mainstay Jason Butler takes that spotlight.
In the end, this is not just the full flowering of one of the city’s funkiest fusion bands: Identity is a scene record, a perfect amalgamation of all the good things that have been happening to New Orleans music in the past decade. It’s like Jazz Fest if you divided your schedule between nothing but Congo Square and the Jazz Tent—the good stuff, in other words. And here’s how you know the six transplants in Naughty Professor got it right: It’s also a goddamn party.