It's hard to find heroes in a musical genre so blatantly absurd as lounge
. Martin Denny
, you might say, or Les Baxter
, king of exotica
, perhaps. The new kids, like Combustible Edison
or Pink Martini
, are fine for sipping cocktails
to and doing everything else that the culture requires, but, man, there just isn't anyone around like Esquivel. Imagine for a moment a world of audiophiles who were suddenly making the big leap from monoaural to, yes, hi-fidelity
stereophonic sound. It was likely a vast and scary thing, this possibility that sound could be coming at you from two completely different directions, rich and vibrant, so much closer to the live experience (which, after all, is what the audiophiles were hankering for). Esquivel arrived on the scene and knew exactly what to do with the technology. Putting on an Esquivel record and listening to it through a pair of headphones opens up entire universes, galaxies of trills, nebulae of women softly cooing Zuu Zuu Zuu
and Boop Ba Doop
, vast landscapes populated with ondiolines
, and strings, full orchestras creating a celestial dance between your ears. It is damn near heaven if you have an ear for the sheer wackiness.
Really, to get the gist of all this, track down a copy of the song Sentimental Journey, one of many standards Esquivel arranged. It opens with a dirty little trombone wump... wump... wump wump wump wump... wuh-wump..., and then adds a high hat, and then a little more percussion, and then a man whistling, some brushed snare, the aforementioned Zuu Zuu Zuu's, a little bassoon, one by one, a little at a time and then some tympani strikes lead into this EXPLOSION! of horns. It is gorgeous, perfectly orchestrated. This is a man who was known to say in the studio "That was good... Let's do another." He knew what he wanted on record, and he was patient about getting his way.
Juan Garcia Esquivel was born in Tampico, Tamaulipas in Mexico on January 20, 1918. By the age of fourteen, he had taught himself to arrange for and play piano, and was a featured soloist on Mexico City's most popular radio station, XEW. At the age of eighteen, he was arranging, composing, and conducting his very own twenty-two-piece orchestra with five vocalists and a vast horn and string section, earning him the respect of the Mexican music listening public, not to mention a mess of gigs in theatres and nightclubs. He left his country for a brief stint at Juilliard, and returned home to score and star in two Mexican films, "Cabaret Tragico" and "Las Locuras del Rock 'n' Roll."
Around the early fifties, Esquivel had enlarged his orchestra to a massive fifty-four pieces and was a tiny god in his native country. His first album, Esquivel y su piano cristalino (Esquivel and his Crystalline Piano), released in Mexico in 1956, was enough of a success to catch the ears of RCA executives, paving the way for his grand stereo debut in 1958, entitled Other Worlds, Other Sounds, which earned a Grammy nomination.
His initial success as a studio artist would see the release of eleven albums within a decade, including Four Corners of the World (1958), Exploring New Sounds in Hi-Fi (1959), Strings Aflame (1959), You and the Might and the Music (1959), Infinity in Sound and Infinity in Sound, Vol. 2 (1960), Latin-esque (1962), and More of Other Worlds, Other Sounds (1962) (a brief switch to the Reprise label). His work then went onto include a collaboration with the Ames Brothers, and soundtracks for television shows such as The Tall Man, Markham, and The Bob Cummings Show.
It was Latin-esque that really proved Esquivel as the head of the pantheon of the gods of stereophonic sound. Recorded in two studios with two different conductors and a click track to ensure pure stereo separation, it was possibly the most ambitious orchestral album of the time, and cost RCA a fortune while they waited for Esquivel to get the perfect take. Eventually, this was the album that cost him his glory, despite being his most fulfilled venture yet. None of Esquivel's albums ever reached the Billboard Top 200 and, after a decade long travelling stint with a vastly reduced combo, a couple parting records, and a failed marriage to his business manager Yvonne DeBourbon, he moved back to Mexico to compose and record themes for a children's television puppet show entitled Burbujas, which spawned two albums.
In 1993, Esquivel broke his hip while visiting his brother, aggravating an old spinal injury and confining him to bed rest during the final years of his life. Oddly enough, this is about the time that jaded hipsters started rediscovering the manic and wildly creative sounds of Esquivel, prompting a series of reissues from Bar/None and RCA, not to mention a beautiful restoration of a lost album recorded in 1960, entitled See it in Sound, which features an extraordinary arrangement of Ary Barroso's Brazil that takes the listener on a journey through three nightclubs, all playing the same song, with different atmospheres and tempos.
Rumor has it that Esquivel was even working on a collaboration with members of Combustible Edison until he suffered two strokes in 2001, one in October and another in December, which led to his death on January 3, 2002.
Esquivel was a musical prankster. He replaced the lyrics to popular jazz standards with bizzare mutations of words and extraordinary instrumentations (I did not mention the bass accordion. Or the boo-bams, a 24-piece bongo kit tuned to F.). He played tricks on the average easy listening fan, lulling them in with soft melodies and then boxing them in the ears with bright horn arrangements. Lounge music in general isn't normal, but this is downright ludicrous... but, strangely, enjoyable. This is the music for smilers. This is the music for dancers. This is the music of satellites and atoms. This is space age bachelor pad music, and it was all Esquivel's doing. If you feel you've ever lost your sense of whimsy, seek out Senor Esquivel: he may have borrowed it just for a bit. I am sure you will understand.