When it comes to jazz, an awareness of history is innate to the genre. Whether it is Charlie “Bird” Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis or even the Marsalis Brothers, jazz breathes like a historical document, eternally open for new and interesting interpretation. New Orleans, a cultural epicenter for American jazz, is the breeding ground for much of this experimentation. While traditions remain intact, the music continues to evolve. Few bands represent that better than Naughty Professor, a young group of transplants who seek to showcase their versatility and push the boundaries of the genre. As drummer Sam Shahin says, “We try to make the staple of our sound our versatility. We try to think of the music as alive.”
The name “Naughty Professor” is a tribute to the ways they seek to push boundaries while also referencing their education. Despite being from different parts of the country, including Texas, California, Illinois, Vermont and Washington, D.C., they came together as students at Loyola University New Orleans.
“It was really spawned from just the excitement of everybody coming to New Orleans to study music,” Shahin describes. “It was spawned specifically out of jam sessions in the Loyola practice rooms before the school session had really even started.”
Initially a five piece, the band added tenor saxophone to complete “the orchestration of the group.” Two years after these initial sessions, Shahin replaced their original drummer, giving birth to the lineup that has been present on each of their four albums.
New jazz in a reborn city
One of the keys to the band’s sound was the environment: New Orleans and its vibrant community of artists and musicians. As Shahin says, “Really it was just a bunch of cats who came to New Orleans specifically for the excitement of the music culture and the history there who ended up just parlaying that excitement into playing together and ended up saying, ‘Well man, let’s just kind of do this. Let’s just form a band instead of just playing in a practice room all the time’.”
The timing of their arrival in New Orleans was unique. Each of the members arrived in the years after Hurricane Katrina as the city attempted to rebuild itself. This timing is yet another aspect of Naughty Professor that illuminates their love of the city and its sounds.
“We were not Katrina kids, but we were in the shadow of Katrina,” Shahin says. The uncertainty about how New Orleans would recover allowed the various band members to slowly work themselves into the community, demonstrating their appreciation while also clearly wanting to forge their own path.
“All of us were very interested in not solely the rebuilding of the city, both in terms of infrastructure and music and the arts community, but how we could re-contextualize the history of the city to be a part of the forward-moving progress,” Shahin says.
As much as Naughty Professor audibly expands upon their knowledge of New Orleans jazz, they also value the history of the city and its endless music legends. Seeing the city work toward recovery gave the band members the opportunity to create their own space, one that could be used to bring new life to a community that had so suddenly lost much of its identity.
“The population was so small down here that there were ways to fill that void,” Shahin says. “We were able to fill it in not just in musical ways, but also by being a part of the city and trying to do everything we can to show appreciation for the culture that was there, both musically and non.”
The opportunity to fill what Shahin referred to as a “void” was born from a uniquely New Orleans mentality. While the city has its traditions and a specific style that is revered in the larger music community, it is also one that is incredibly willing to adapt and expand what people see as “New Orleans jazz.” As Shahin describes, “All of us had such an incredible respect for not only the history of the music in New Orleans, but the community that is current in the city—just the way that people embrace new musical styles while incorporating the old music styles that got them to where they are was something that really impressed me.”
Never accept the status quo
Keeping in mind that they are part of a lineage of jazz musicians (Shahin cited Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis and John Coltrane Quintets as some of their oldest influences), the band has used the New Orleans ethos to spur their own growth. As musicians that first played together as college students, Naughty Professor staunchly believes in the need to continually evolve and grow.
“There’s definitely an aspect of all of us coming of age and coming into our voices, both individually and together as a unit, putting together each voice to create a true narrative,” Shahin says. “There’s definitely an aspect of bildungsroman or whatever you want to refer to it as. An audio version of that, a musical kind of coming of age thing with all of us.”
Growing together has not only helped Naughty Professor create a unique sound, but also helped them mix together influences from across the country. Jazz traditions from across the country and even a little bit of D.C. hardcore punk have made it into their sound. When they bring what Shahin refers to as their “voices” together, it creates a unique sound that keeps traditions in mind while also traversing boundaries.
“One of the things I love so much about being in Naughty Professor is that there are places where our interests and influences collide, but there’s such a—for lack of a better term—melting pot of styles that we all regularly listen to and have appreciated for years,” he says.
Their first album, record in their house and released in 2013, was Until the Next Time. The album has many traditional elements of New Orleans jazz, but was also an important move toward incorporating more modern sounds, ones that strayed from the old school. However, things really began to change with their 2015 album, Out on a Limb. This was the first album the band recorded live. After In the Flesh, recorded at one of their shows in 2016, the band returned to the studio that same year to record Identity. The album was recorded live in studio over the course of six sessions between January and July. And while they had been writing the album for several months, it began to evolve in-studio.
Perhaps the starkest change between their first three albums and 2017’s Identity is the prominent placement of vocals. Though the band originally had a singer when they first started playing gigs, they opted to move toward instrumentals. With Identity, the band has pushed themselves even further. There are elements of old-school soul and even certain sounds that echo metal, a large part of which is almost certainly due to guitarist Bill Daniel’s interest in Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. This departure from what people had considered the “Naughty Professor Sound” is something that the band takes pride in.
“That’s kind of the point of naming the album Identity, actually, is the two-pronged thing where each one of these songs has a specific identity and also that our identity as a band is our versatility,” Shahin says. “That’s what we’re all about, that we’re so open to anything that this world may bring to us. Everything is an inspiration. Everything could be an inspiration at least, be it musical or non-musical. These aspects of life, this experiential knowledge always plays a role in creating a new, exciting sound. We just try to show that the identity of the band is that versatility, that we’re always going to keep pushing ourselves and each other.”
As for the presence of vocalists, including David Shaw of the Revivalists and Chali 2na of Jurassic 5, Shahin says that it was a new challenge, one that was impacted by their belief that collaboration is vital to the process of creating music.
“It had a lot to do with showing that versatility and expanding our sound beyond what we’re able to do just with instruments and also had to do with the genuine interest in pursuing a collaborative project,” he says. “And why, if we’re pursuing a collaborative project, would we cut out vocalists just because we haven’t had vocalists in a while? We wanted to collaborate with all types of guys and that was very genuinely interesting to us. We just got together with a wide variety of people that we knew and liked and wanted to work with and made it do what it did.”
Evolving, alive, always
These ideas about evolution and versatility are perhaps what define Naughty Professor even more than the notes or the chord progressions. The band sees music as being “alive.” That living, breathing aspect to the music is best displayed in their performances. Videos of the band playing at the Blue Nile in New Orleans unveil the fact that Naughty Professor doesn’t see songs as written in stone; instead, they are canvases that are continually open for new brushstrokes.
“So much of the music has to do with improvisation,” Shahin says. “And not just improvisation, but collective improvisation—responding to each other. Spontaneous creation, which is related to improvisation but slightly different. That’s another aspect that I really appreciate about being in this band—the songs can be significantly different on any given day. You just have to keep your ears open and see where the tune may go. All of these songs are alive when we bring them on the road.”
It becomes clear the more you watch their live performances and listen to their studio recordings that Naughty Professor creates music that is meant to grow on the road just as they grow the more they tour and perform together. This makes the music fresh, vibrant, and catchier than what many would assume modern jazz would sound like. Naughty Professor doesn’t just want to roll into town, get through their set, and get out of town. They want to commune with their fans, with their audience. It requires constant adaptation and a true bond between the band members.
“What feeds into the evolution of the live show is our continual thirst for being better individually and as a unit, no doubt about that,” Shahin says. “I think we’re all really passionate about growing individually and that passion comes out on stage with each member of the band providing a voice. More than just providing a voice is having a legitimate conversation. You’re challenging each other. You’re pushing each other to go further, to grow on the spot. That growth process has everything to do with the evolution of the live show.”
Whether you think Naughty Professor is a New Orleans band, a jazz band, a live band, or just a group of friends growing together, they want you to know that they’re always going to grow. That could very well be in the shape of a larger fanbase, but it will always be apparent in their sound and their live performances. Born out of a recovering city and the sounds of tradition, Naughty Professor is only just getting started. It’s up to the listener to catch a ride.
Join Naughty Professor on Sat, July 15 during their Patio Party set at Flagstaff Brewing Co., 16 E. Rte. 66. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 the day of the show. Ages 21 and over. For more info, call 773-1442 or visit www.greenhouseproductions.net. Learn more about the band at www.naughtyprofessormusic.com.