Their résumé reads like a history book of American funk and the music of New Orleans. Jeff Watkins is a saxophone player who spent 15 years with James Brown. Jake Eckert played guitar with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and drummer Willie Green has spent over 30 years with The Neville Brothers. Classically-trained keyboard player C.R. Gruver has been around New Orleans, and in Denver jam-band Polytoxic for years, and bass player Charlie Wooten has been playing the music of New Orleans all his life. That’s the current lineup of The New Orleans Suspects, performing Friday (Aug. 26) at the Durango V.F.W.
They began as a loose collection of friends meeting to play, with no intent on regular gigs, recording or even rehearsing; The Maple Leaf Bar, a venue in the Carrolton neighborhood of New Orleans and within walking distance of the bandmembers’ homes, was the petri dish that gave the band life.
“It started as almost a jam session at the Maple Leaf, which is a mainstay here in town. At the time we were all in different bands. Occasionally, we would all be in town at the same time, but it was never really something that was planned,” said Eckert in a recent interview. “The owner of the club would call me up and say, ‘Hey Jake, can you put a band together, we have a slot we have to fill.’ So I’d call the guys from the neighborhood. That happened once; we had a great time. Then a few other times it happened. Eventually, I’d get called and he’d say, ‘Can you get the ‘usual suspects’ together?’ That was 2009, 2010. Then we played a month of Wednesday nights. By 2011, we added saxophone, were approached by management and booking, and asked to take this on the road.” Ditch the word “usual” and add “New Orleans” and you have a band and a brand.
There are very few cities that have an identifiable style of music recognized by name. Mention music of New Orleans to anyone and it’s likely the first sound heard in your head is a style of horn-driven funk born from jazz and blues.
“There’s a lot of America in New Orleans. Because of the location, being one of the southern-most port cities,” said Eckert. “You have this Cuban influence, you have Delta blues. Dixieland, second-line brass-band music, and the Buddy Bolden era of jazz; Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint. It’s all coming together. A lot of that sound has to do with the geography.”
The band is touring in support of its new record “Kaleidoscoped,” a textbook of an album of New Orleans funk, loaded with guitar and driving horns over beds of funk and zydeco.
“New Orleans” music is as American as the folk, country and string-band music of early Appalachia; music found in the vast public-domain songbook that is chock-full of centuries-old numbers that have been recorded as much by musicians tied to New Orleans as they have on country and bluegrass records. That’s something Eckert learned after leaving the mountain areas of North Carolina for the Big Easy.
“Doc Watson would play ‘Jesus on the Mainline’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ These traditional gospel tunes. When I joined Dirty Dozen, we were playing the same music,” said Eckert. “I realized this is American music. The difference is the New Orleans rhythm, based on the second-line beat.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected].