On the Rise: Naughty Professor

Listening to Naughty Professor is an opportunity to time-travel through the history of jazz, especially the musical roots of New Orleans. In the process of research for a review of a recent show in Tampa, I noted this:

Currently, there is no Wikipedia listing for Naughty Professor (not the band, anyway), so here is a suggestion:

“Naughty Professor is a New Orleans-based sextet of young musicians in the present respecting the jazz traditions of the past while playing the music of the future.” Their bio observes their creation in 2011, where “the band’s mission was to embody the jazz-influenced party culture of the Big Easy in a constantly evolving, high energy funk/soul outfit.”

They got it perfectly right. The New Orleans influence on the current music scene is massive no matter where you go. That is especially true at festivals such as Wanee, Bear Creek and AURA, all of which feature numerous purveyors of the Big Easy sound in all its wide-ranging variations. Naughty Professor belongs squarely in the center of this conversation. These six young men have created a remarkable ensemble that demands to be heard – and seen.

Their music honors the traditions from King Oliver and Louis Armstrong to the Meters and Allen Toussaint to the Marsalis family and the second-line brass bands and the current scene, with George Porter’s bands and Galactic and Dumpstaphunk. No levees can keep all that music in, and you see its influence nationally and internationally.

One of the first things you note about NP is the magnificent syncopated horns — in perfect unison with incredible punch to their delivery. That punch comes from a back line you might forget, because the three horns are so great, but… the horns show ultimate respect to the back line or whoever is soloing by walking off stage. It is a brilliant, time-honored tradition that keeps Naughty Professor with one foot squarely in the past and the other stepping into the future.

Friday, May 12th, marks the release of Naughty Professor’s second full-length album, Out on a Limb on Ropeadope Records.

Often, when a studio album is released, fans give it a listen and then shelve it away, because the studio doesn’t always capture what that band does live on stage. However, a number of recent releases are bucking this trend, and Out on a Limb is absolutely one of these. This is a perfect snapshot of Naughty Professor in concert, with all of its romp and stomp and nuance and tenderness. This is a great recording, both from a performance standpoint and engineering as well.

Bassist Noah Young noted: “We called this album Out on a Limb because it felt like we were taking a lot of risks in terms of expanding our sound. This record shows a softer side of us (“Out on a Limb,” “It’ll Happen”) than you have heard before, as well as an expansion of our heavier elements (“Prune Juice,” “No! No! Not in the FACE”) that gets closer to metal than we’ve toyed with in the past. Also, this was recorded after a heavy year of touring, so these songs have been road-tested and tightened up more than our previous releases.”

“This was the first time we did a record in a professional recording studio! Out on a Limb was recorded at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, LA (same place that Kansas recorded “Carry On Wayward Son”). It was produced by Grammy-nominated producer Chris Finney, who has worked with Rebirth Brass Band, The Revivalists and lots of other famous New Orleans artists that we look up to. This album was recorded with all of us in the same room playing at the same time, just like a live performance. In the past we have done individual tracking, and to me it’s obvious that the new record is much better because we didn’t do that,” said Young.

That is certainly what I heard during repeated listens to this new album.

“As They Say in the Biz” starts with Noah Young’s bass and Sam Shahin sounding like Art Taylor. Then the horns fall in trading back and forth between two-part and three-part harmonies. This is a Naughty Professor trademark, delivered in homage to Blakey and Silver, Basie and Ellington. Snarky Puppy mines this same rich musical vein. The tempo rocks back and forth, and then Bill Daniel starts a subdued wah-wah guitar solo that explodes, joined again by the horns at song’s end.

Daniel kicks off “Third Past,” leading to a horn section with John Culbreth on trumpet so tender it sounds muted. Then Ian Bowman takes off on a percolating tenor sax solo punctuated by Shahin’s drums as the tempo picks up.

Daniel also does the intro honors on “The Elephant Hunt” with a nod toward Gabor Szabo. Then the horns hit this beautiful punchy section, and the song builds and builds. Daniel’s guitar figure appears again, and suddenly he trades Szabo for Zappa and whips out a monster wah-wah fuzztone solo with Shahin stomping underneath. As the band comes back in, Daniel is still tripping, and Young’s bass is huge. Somehow, they pull it back down to finish with the same opening groove.

The horn attack slams you immediately on “Brain Storm” and never lets up. Culbreth has a rollicking, romping solo, followed by a conversation between Bowman on tenor and Nick Ellman on alto sax that is superb.

“Prune Juice” sets you up like a bowling pin, all smooth like a late-60s Blue Note album. Suddenly, guitar chords and drums and horns turn into Heavy Metal meets “Open Sesame” (Kool and the Gang). Think of the old Memorex commercial with the guy pinned back in his chair. That’s you, right now! Bowman wails on tenor, then Ellman on alto, and Daniel goes wild again (they don’t call him Wild Bill for nothin’).

The title track showcases Bowman with an Eddie Harris approach. The tempo stays manageable, the guitar paced. Catch your breath before it’s too late!

“Norman” is out of the starting gate like a shot, horns romping. Ellman is playing baritone. Horns, guitar, horns, then Ellman on bari solo with some interesting sounds toward the end. Daniel takes it out softly while Shahin is throwing down a world of drums beneath him.

Next, take a roller coaster ride on “Glass Two Apples.” The gentle intro and horns give way to a slamming guitar solo, then a great extended outing from Ellman on alto. Things get wild at the end again, with Bowman blowing free.

“Elbow Soul” starts with the horns again punctuating the sound. Daniel takes a brief solo, and after a strong horn section, there is a beautiful tenor solo as the ride slows down. The horns close the tune.

“It’ll Happen” settles down a little bit. Bowman rides on top of the horn section, then Daniel on guitar, and Culbreth takes another excellent solo, sounding great on flugelhorn.

Finally, we get to “No! No! Not in the FACE!” Whatever else this song title might imply, the music is absolutely “in your face.” This is a brilliant close to the album. It starts calmly enough (there’s a pattern here), as Daniel opens this familiar guitar line. As the horns come in, it is apparent that Shahin is totally unfettered and ready to romp. Ellman has another nice alto solo, and Daniel begins his solo peacefully enough, but he’s shredding by the time he is done and Shahin goes wild, and the band simply blasts until the final second. WHEW!

And all of this is coming from a bunch of young cats, who probably get carded at the bar between sets, as they show everybody just how it’s done. BRAVO!


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