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The 1950s had been a great time for jazz. Although it was not the popular music of the day, it had a large constituency who were willing to be wooed by the music in both its modern and more traditional forms. However, by the 1960s things had started to change; records were still being sold, but the crossovers were fewer and further apart. However there were bright spots: most notably 1965's breakthrough for the Ramsey Lewis Trio and the latin-tinged, lightly jazzy instrumental sounds of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, a distinctly Los Angeles sound that was flying out of the shops from 1965. Alpert scored five #1s and three other Top 10 hits in three years, and many labels tried to cas-in on this phenomenal success. Fred Smith's group of labels, Mira, Mirwood and Crestview (valued nowadays for its Northern Soul classics), recorded a lot of LPs in this vein, the most interesting of which are those by the Afro Blues Quintet. They mixed the Ramsey Lewis style with a touch of latin. The covers of pop records and a certain laid-back attitude makes it clear that the Quintet were also aiming at the sophisticated audience who wouldn't necessarily want the screaming sounds of pop.
The Afro Blues Quintet had been put together in 1963 by the Joseph DeAguero, also known as "Little Joe". His role in the group was as leader, vibes player and, for that gospel flavour, a bit of tambourine. The original saxophone player was Jack Fulks, who had studied at UCL and had previously played with Chico Hamilton. Pianist Bill Henderson also played bass, drums, flute and vibes. His professional experience had been with Terry Gibbs. At the time of their signing they were using a percussion player, Bill Fitch, who had been a member of the bands of Tito Puente and Cal Tjader when based on the East coast. The original drummer was Jim Keltner, who had played with the pop act Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and later went on to become one of the most popular session drummers of the late 60s and 70s.
The band came to the attention of producers Hal Schwartz and Jack Millman when they were playing a residency at a club called the Living Room on Sunset Strip, who signed them up to a production deal with their Music Industries production company through Mira Records. It was on this label that their debut album, "Introducing The Afro Blues Quintet + 1", appeared in January 1966. This LP laid out their stall, a mixture of gospel standards to emulate Ramsey Lewis' Wade In The Water, perhaps and recent hits. There is also the gospel-tinged Moses and Jerico. That pattern was repeated with Let My People Go on their second LP. "Introducing " worked well, gaining a release in the UK on CBS, and led to a second studio album "New Directons" recorded before the end of the year.
The next album to appear, "Discovery 3", seems to promise more of the same, but is largely a step back from the brink. It mainly features covers that could do with some livening up, but on Alex North's ever-beautiful theme from Spartacus the band's character shines through and on the Stevie Wonder cover La La La the heavy soul jazz beat would have the feet moving in any club. The third album was titled "Next Album". The groove on this LP is much tighter, and tracks such as 'Some Velvet Morning', that could so easily have been cheesy schmaltz, work out as fine soul jazz tracks, whilst 'Pata Pata' is exactly the sort of fine latinesque pop that works so well with an act like this.
Two further Afro Blues Quintet albums appeared, but these are believed to be by the earlier band's members. The first was released around the same time period of the first two LPs and is a live set that showcases a more jazzy Latin sound. The final album, "Afro Blues Today", had a glorious 50s-style sleeve although it was released in 1970. The album is great, but a couple of factors lead us to suspect that this is an album made up out of leftover cuts from the vaults maybe with some overdubs. Supporting that notion is first the presence of Jack Millman's writing credits on the album, and second there is the dreadful re-processed stereo, which suggests that the tracks were all recorded in mono, an unlikely occurrence in 1970 when stereo would have been the industry standard. We are presenting the tracks taken from that LP in mono for the first time.
The Afro Blues Quintet, LA's finest latin jazz combo. Sophisticated, slick and ready to get down.
by DEAN RUDLAND