Requiem For A Latin Pioneer: Bobby Espinosa

Keyboardist Bobby Espinosa, called by one music writer "The Jimmy Smith of East Los Angeles," died last week in Los Angeles, at age 60.

Espinosa was a founding member of the 1970s-era Latin band El Chicano. Though the band was marketed as a pop act, they were a damn good Latin jazz band too.

Espinosa brought his love of jazz to the group, and the result was Hammond organ-fueled Latin takes on jazz classics like Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower" and Gerald Wilson's "Viva Tirado," which landed on both the Billboard Pop (#28) and R&B (#20) charts in 1970.

El Chicano's first two albums landed at #8 and #16 on the Billboard Jazz Album charts. Espinosa's Jimmy Smith-influenced organ, together with guitarist Mickey Lespron's Wes Montgomery-style playing, would have sounded at home on any Blue Note recording session. Congeuro Andres Baeza and timbalero Rudy Regalado provided an Afro-Cuban element, while drummer John de Luna and bassist Freddie Sanchez endowed the band with rock and soul grooves. Their collective voice was another quality example of an era that ignored boundaries and labels.

Their 1972 album Revolution included a tune made popular by Latin jazz pioneer Cal Tjader in the 1950s, "Cubano Chant" (written by jazz composer Ray Bryant). The vibrato intro by Espinoza holds its own among the masters of the Hammond B-3 organ.

Hear the music, after the jump.

Between 1970 and 1974, each one of the band's first five albums had a jazz or Latin jazz classic on it (including Horace Silver's "Senor Blues"). For over 40 years, El Chicano had a solid base of fans largely among Latinos, many of whom (myself included) found their way to jazz partly through those early El Chicano albums. And Espinosa was central to the serious jazz cred they brought to their music.

One of my favorite Bobby Espinosa moments is from the 1972 El Chicano album Celebration. It's a melancholy, solo take on Josef Zawinul's "In A Silent Way." I've always been touched by the way he re-imagined the lament of a homesick young Austrian into the quiet reflection of a young Chicano from East Los Angeles.

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