It should be noted at the outset that the New Orleans Suspects are not a super group, though they certainly qualify as such in so many ways.
Inasmuch as all five Suspects are former longstanding members of some of the biggest names in music, New Orleans and elsewhere, too—the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Neville Brothers and the Radiators, to name but a few. And inasmuch as all five of them are possessed of an unimpeachable facility on their axe of choice.
No, but what really separates the New Orleans Suspects from most other so-called super groups is the fact that the members are no longer beholden to any of their previous outfits.
“It’s taken a while to defeat that notion,” says NOS bassist Reggie Scanlan, who served 33 years as four-string ace for Crescent City rock act the Radiators, in addition to stints with Professor Longhair, James Booker and Earl King.
“Because we all have good track records, we relied on our resumes to open doors at the beginning,” Scanlan continues. “That carried a certain cache. But it also made people think this is just a side project. We’re not a super group. We’re a band of musicians who share a common vision. It’s a working, organic band. This band is our main focus.”
It’s probably fair to say that the Suspects didn’t really begin so much as they happened, in 2009 at popular New Orleans music venue the Maple Leaf. Scanlan explains that the Maple Leaf owner keeps a list of talented local players he can call in a pinch, pull together on a day’s notice when one of the club’s scheduled acts cancels a booking.
“That’s basically what happened that night,” Scanlan says. “And as we did the show, it was like, ‘Hey, man, this is kind of fun.'”
Even as the would-be Suspects returned to the Maple Leaf stage for repeat performances, their bands of origin began to look increasingly uncertain. Scanlan notes that, “Ed Volker [Radiators bandleader] was retiring, and the Nevilles were falling apart.
“Others were having problems with their bands, too. So finally I said, ‘We spend half our time bitching about the bands we’re in. Why don’t we just do this?”
On the face of it, “this” didn’t look like a particularly viable option—an unlikely mix of schooled musicians like guitarist Jake Eckert, sax-man Jeff Watkins and pianist C.R. Gruver, plus a couple of street-level intuitives in Scanlan and drummer Willie Green, all of them reading from very different musical primers.
“We had three guys who could read charts like they can read a book,” Scanlan laughs. “Then you had me and Willie, guys who came off the streets and learned the hard way, playing in clubs we weren’t old enough to get into yet.
“It doesn’t look like it would work on paper. But it’s that ‘X’ factor that makes it happen. It’s one of those quirky things where we just seem to fit in together. And we knew it from that first note.”
Of course, one could argue that NOS are wholly representative of a certain New Orleans aesthetic. Because New Orleans is a city where—moreso than any other musically fecund urban area—cross-pollination and hybridization, the successful marriage of various and unwieldy musical genres seems more a matter of custom than anomaly.
And the Suspects are in so many ways of a piece with their home city—trafficking in a familiar brand of spicy, swinging N’awlins R&B, but with a potent underpinning of virtuosic jazz fusion that marks the sound as wholly their own.
Scanlan agrees that there is something distinctly New Orleans-centric about his band, and that a different city of origin would have fundamentally altered the Suspects’ DNA. “New Orleans is really more of a European city than any other city in the U.S.,” he explains. “Music came here from all over Europe, from all over the world.
“And bands here, more than in other places, have a tendency to let all that stuff filter through. That’s what keeps the music here moving forward. You could have had the same dynamic with our band members in another city, but it wouldn’t have had that New Orleans feel.”
The New Orleans Suspects’ latest album, Ouroboros, is available at their website, Neworleanssuspects.com. The New Orleans Suspects will play Scruffy City Hall Thursday, Jan. 29 at 10 p.m.