Juan Garcia Esquivel,
Space Age Bachelor Pad Music
(Bar/None, 1994)
Music From a Sparkling Planet
(Bar/None, 1995)

In January 2002, one of my all-time favorite musicians died.

Juan Garcia Esquivel was a bandleader, composer and arranger who will likely be remembered -- unfairly -- as a "lounge revival" phenomenon.

The trend of digging out old, kitchy records by the likes of Martin Denny or Yma Sumac and ironically labeling them "cool" caught on in the early '90s. As hipper-than-thou scenesters reached for new ways to exaggerate their musical jadedness, they turned to the forgotten realms of easy listening music of the '50s and '60s. New bands like Combustible Edison and Pink Martini even began reviving the styles of lounge//exotica, updating the sound for modern audiences.

All of this led to a surge of interest in all things Esquivel. Which was a good thing, despite its ironic origins, as it resulted in a fantastic series of reissues and compilations from Bar/None records.

The compilations, Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and Music From a Sparkling Planet, are outstanding introductions to Esquivel's unique style.

Esquivel struck a balance between lounge jazz, tropical exotica and sci-fi sonic experimentalism, echoes of which can be heard today in the work of musical oddballs like Cornelius and Stereolab.

Born in Mexico in 1918, Esquivel was a Juilliard-trained pianist who found himself composing background music for Mexican radio and, later, television. This experience is evident in practically everything the guy arranged -- there's a really quick, change-it-on-the-fly sound about these compositions, which calls to mind the music behind a rapidly edited TV show.

Esquivel began recording for RCA in the '50s, with an enormous band as his sonic palette. This was the era when stereo was new, and the science of sound was a wondrous thing, still being explored. The recording studios of artists like Esquivel were nothing less than audio laboratories designed to test the limits of a new medium.

And test the limits he did. He augmented his big band with unusual instruments like the theremin and ondioline, and occasionally used a traditional vocal chorus to interject nonsense syllables. He also employed rapid-fire tempo and style changes that are reminiscent of both avant-jazz maven John Zorn and Bugs Bunny soundtrack composer Carl Stalling.

Esquivel took easy listening to a strange new place, and made music that's unlike anything else I've heard.

The question among critics and hipsters alike has always been about intention: Esquivel's music isn't out-and-out bizarre -- it's very listenable and catchy -- but it is decidedly off-center. So, was Esquivel a master satirist, exaggerating the quirks of lounge to their extremes while winking to himself? Or was he just a bit more playful than his contemporaries, using a whitebread medium to express a bit of good-natured wackiness?

I'll argue that the latter is closer to the truth. To me, there's an honesty about this music -- I truly believe the guy who arranged this stuff meant it. Esquivel made the music he wanted to make -- there's no sarcasm or irony here.

After his RCA heyday, Esquivel kept working through the '70s and '80s, both with a live act (Frank Sinatra loved his Vegas show) and as a soundtrack composer (working on everything from The A-Team to Northern Exposure).

His failing health soon left him wheelchair-bound, then bedridden and unable to work, but he always made himself available for interviews and became something of a "go-to guy" for comments on the lounge music revival.

Until his last months, Esquivel kept promising a comeback. Late last year, two strokes left him paralyzed and unable to speak. On Jan. 3, 2002, he died.

Some of the sparkle has gone out of our planet.

[ by Paddy O'Furniture ]
Rambles: 18 May 2002

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