After joining forces as Loyola University jazz studies students seven years ago, the members of Naughty Professor realized they wrote music far more proficiently than words. Thus, they have presented themselves mostly as a jazz-funk instrumental sextet, with three horns functioning as the band's "voice."
But seven tracks on their new CD, “Identity,” feature vocals, thanks to collaborations with David Shaw of the Revivalists, rapper Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, and jazz singer Sasha Masakowski, among others.
"It happened organically,” alto and baritone saxophonist Nick Ellman said recently. As he and his bandmates wrote the music, “we realized there was room for it to go somewhere else.”
“The point is to show that our identity can be anything,” drummer Sam Shahin said. “The music is alive, it’s breathing, it’s always capable of being shaped or nurtured, not only by us, but by the listener. The identity of the band is versatility.”
While still in college, they toured as much as their school schedules allowed. Since graduation, they have hit the road even harder as full-time musicians. In July, Naughty Professor embarks on a six-week tour of the West Coast, with stops in Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Missouri.
But first, they’ll celebrate the new album, their fourth overall and most ambitious to date, with a free hometown show at Tipitina’s on Friday (June 23). The show is part of the club’s summer-long Foundation Free Fridays concert series; The Crooked Vines are also on the bill.
Like the Revivalists, Naughty Professor is a band born and based in New Orleans that consists of musicians who originally hailed from elsewhere: Two from Houston and one each from Austin, Chicago, Vermont and California.
“We arrived hungry,” Ellman said. “We came here ready to play, ready to form a band and make it a thing we do with our lives, THE thing we do with our lives.”
“We all had a tremendous amount of respect for the history and community of New Orleans music, and we wanted to be surrounded by what was going on,” Shahin said. “We met in school, but the education process that can happen outside of school in New Orleans was also important to us.”
Shahin, Ellman and bassist Noah Young played in various bands, including a hip-hop group, before the first version of Naughty Professor coalesced in 2010. Shahin joined them two years later, replacing original drummer Danny Milojevic. The lineup now features Ellman, Shahin, Young, trumpeter John Culbreth, guitarist Bill Daniel and tenor saxophonist Ian Bowman.
Early gigs included covers by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Sly & the Family Stone and Janelle Monae sung by Mahogany Medlock, the band's vocalist at the time. But it soon became apparent to the musicians that they didn’t necessarily need a singer.
“We had so much instrumental material,” Ellman said. “We were pushing it out, and it didn’t feel like it needed anything else. It’s all just music, the musical language that is the band. It didn’t matter if there were words or not. We were still speaking through what we were playing.”
They modeled their group dynamic after Miles Davis’ quintets and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a “massive inspiration in terms of the way the horns harmonize and blend,” Shahin said. “The core of what we’re doing has a lot to do not just with improvisation, but the creation of spontaneous composition.
“There’s a Wayne Shorter quote that I love: ‘Composition is just improvisation slowed down.’ I always thought that was a cool way to think of it.”
The three horns may be Naughty Professor’s voices, but the rhythm section also gets in on the conversation.
“The rhythm section isn’t just laying down a canvas for the horns to paint on,” Ellman said. “Every single member has a voice, and is the singer at times. We pass around the focal points of a song. Sam does a lot of linear drumming, more melodic than solely rhythmic. It’s not just a static drum beat.”
Such academic discussions are the “Professor” side of the band. The attitude with which they apply their academics is the “Naughty” side. It also might be considered the “New Orleans side.”
“More than anything else, there’s an energy about the city that permeates bands that live here,” Ellman said. “You live it, and it comes with you.”
While opening for Galactic at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl a couple years ago, he and his bandmates met Charli 2na, a frequent Galactic collaborator. As they considered what they wanted their “Identity” to be, they envisioned working with Charli 2na, as well as David Shaw and other friends and acquaintances. Trumpeter Eric “Benny” Bloom of Lettuce also wound up guesting on the album, as did Ivan Neville, the Soul Rebels, percussionist/vibraphonist Mike Dillon, guitarist Cliff Hines, Dexter Gilmore of Sexy Dex & the Fresh and Chicago-based keyboardist and singer Cole DeGenova.
“We really thought of ‘Identity’ as a collaborative project,” Shahin said. “Instrumental music was a way to show all of our interests, and how everybody has a voice. This was a way to expand on those voices.”