Naughty Professor Put The Future Into Funk On New LP ‘Identity’ (INTERVIEW)

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Since their inception in 2010, the New Orleans sextet known as Naughty Professor have been blowing away live audiences and winning scores of new fans with their eclectic brand of funk-infused jazz. With two studio albums and one live recording under their collective belt, Naughty Professor recruited a host of talented collaborators for their new LP Identity (released 6/23). The aptly-named album deftly merges each band member’s unique style and influences with those of artists such as Mike Dillon, Chali 2na, David Shaw, and Ivan Neville, capturing a sound that’s both accessible and interesting, unexpected yet familiar.

New Orleans is a city full of ghosts, and jazz greats of the past can be heard in everything Naughty Professor puts out, cavorting with R&B legends and lending their voices to the background of each track. With Identity, Naughty Professor continues to pay respectful homage to the artists who paved the way for the band, while crafting an album that points the way to the future of modern music. The record travels seamlessly from one genre to the next and back, all while maintaining their signature sound.

Glide recently chatted with Naughty Professor drummer Sam Shahin about the new album, with input from trumpet player John Culbreth and saxophonist Nick Ellman. It’s not surprising that with as much as Naughty Professor have already accomplished, they’re still going full-speed ahead, with concert dates booked into the fall and their next album already underway.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track off the new album [Identity]. It’s so diverse but at the same time it’s very cohesive, so it’s tough to compare one song to the next and pick a favorite.

That was a huge goal of the record: to be as diverse as possible, to showcase all of our interests, influences, et cetera, but still to have a cohesive nature to it — something that ties it all together, the spirit of collaboration between us and each of the featured artists.

How did you decide who to collaborate with on Identity? There’s so much variety there.

The process of taking the collaborators was one of the most exciting but also one of the most difficult, because there are so many people we want to work with and have come across either in New Orleans or around the country as we’ve been touring. We made a large set of demos and sent them out to a few friends, featured artists, et cetera, and tried to find out what songs they would be interested in working on and if this idea really had legs. We found out pretty quickly that it did have legs, that there are a lot of people who were interested in working with us. And more than interested in just working with us, but interested in being part of a collaborative effort: writing with us, getting the rehearsal room together, and things like that; more than just “Okay, if you want me to come into the studio that sounds good and we’ll do it.” We wanted it to be more than that, actually collaborating with these artists was a huge priority for us. One of the biggest aspects of helping us choose the artists was having artists who were really interested in collaborating and not just being told what to do and throwing their part on the song. They really wanted to have an active role in the creation and energy of the project.

Identity feels a little more complex, maybe, than your previous albums. What helped propel you in this different direction? Was it just a natural evolution for the band, or was a conscious shift toward something new?

The answer to both would have to be “yes.” We had a sincere interest in expanding our horizons as individuals and as a unit, to be able to create more in more genres. We’re influenced as a band and individually in more genres than just the ways represented ourselves in Out on a Limb and Until the Next Time. So this came in part organically from the passionate desire to continue to expand what we were creating and the roles that each of our instruments could play in the songwriting process and in our music. That part was very organic and very natural, and it felt right to incorporate others into that so we could achieve that goal. It was at a certain point a conscious decision to get featured artists on every single song, rather than just a few.

What are you all working on individually outside of Naughty Professor, that allows you to further explore your individual styles and influences?

We all have projects outside of Naughty Professor. We do freelance work, Noah has The Noah Young band which has various configurations depending on the gig, and all of us work with different artists especially when we’re home in New Orleans. Bill [Daniel] has his own studio called Wild Child Studios, which has a wide variety of artists who come through and do all type of different recording projects. The horns, the Naughty Horns, play with Dumpstaphunk and they do a wide variety of projects as well. I believe Dumpstaphunk is their main employer, but they also do projects just as The Naughty Horns. We’re all working musicians outside of Naughty Professor, but Naughty Professor is definitely the main focus for all of us. It’s the passion project for all of us.

You mention all the different influences that came together to make Naughty Professor work. I know you all met through a jazz program at Loyola, but what are some of the other influences that each of you bring to the band to create that unique sound?

That’s a really good question. I’d say for me, a lot of those influences and inspirations aren’t even musical. There’s a lot of experiential knowledge that you come across living in New Orleans or traveling or any number of other things. Certainly the musical influences that we have extend across everything from the instrumental and more contemporary jazz side like Kneebody, Snarky Puppy, John Coltrane, Miles Davis… I also grew up loving hip hop and classic rock, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, stuff like that. We all have a myriad of influences individually, and those influences combine in certain areas. Some of us may be more into things like Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor or whatever, other cats maybe more into Coltrane and Miles, but we still both have great appreciation for all of that and what it brings to the canon of music. All of us are extremely passionate about gaining new knowledge and new influences from within the musical realm, and we kind of use that to tie specific influences into the band.

Nick Ellman: A lot of times the outcome is a result of those influences coming together. Everybody writes in the band. Because everyone writes, they bring their style and then it gets reworked, and it becomes a unit that incorporates all of those influences into the songwriting process.

New Orleans is known for having a distinctive culture, aside from the music that it’s spawned. Naughty Professor doesn’t have that stereotypical “New Orleans sound” necessarily, but I’m curious about how living in New Orleans has shaped your writing musical vision.

What we play could not exist without New Orleans culture, but it’s not New Orleans music the way people typically talk about it from yesterday to today. It’s not in the lineage of that, but we couldn’t  be doing what we do without everything that New Orleans has come to represent and to speak for.

John Culbreth: That’s exactly what attracted us to New Orleans. What allowed us to come together and meet in New Orleans was our tremendous respect and admiration and desire to be part of those traditions, both cultural and musical, and where they overlap.

You collaborated with some incredible artists on Identity. Can you think of anyone you’d like to collaborate with in the future, who you haven’t worked with yet?

That’s a tough question. It’s a really long list.

Nick: I guess the best way to answer that is to say that we’re already talking about what our next project will be. We’ve already started writing new music, and so far it’s all instrumental. It’s possible that the next record will be all instrumental, just the six of us core members, but we are talking about another project where we work with more people. It was such a privilege last time, we enjoyed the whole process. It’s hard to come up with any specific names without knowing where the album will go, but we are working on a follow-up to Identity.

Naughty Professor are: Sam Shahin (drums), Nick Ellman (alto and baritone sax), John Culbreth (trumpet), Ian Bowman (tenor sax), Bill Daniel (guitar), and Noah Young (bass). They’re currently on tour in the US, with upcoming dates from the West Coast to the midwest and deep into Texas. Find their music, including Identity, and more information about the band at naughtyprofessormusic.com.

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