Before there was Bjork, or Prince, or Liberace—well, right around the same time as Liberace—there was Esquivel. Or, to give him his preferred billing, “Esquivel!” That jazzy exclamation point tells you something about Juan Garcia Esquivel, the band leader, composer, and arranger who died earlier this month at 83. It suggests both excitement and exactitude, which his recordings of the 1950s and ‘60s had in spades. They bristled with precisely placed sound effects, wordless vocalizations, swoops into dissonance, and enough on-a-dime tempo changes to fluster James Brown. His instrumentation alone would have been enough to qualify him as a great eccentric: I haven’t checked this, but I feel reasonably sure he was the only major bandleader of the era to use both the ondioline and the buzzimba. In the memorable words of radio host Irwin Chusid, who produced three Esquivel compilation discs, “Esquivel scored his sets for the ballrooms of Venus.”
Because he was rediscovered in the lounge-music boom of the mid-’90s, Esquivel tends to get lumped in with band leaders like Martin Denny and Les Baxter, whose claims to exotica were more strenuous and less interesting. But Esquivel is to Denny or Baxter as Tex Avery is to Walt Disney—a wild man standing next to a deacon. He must have made the deacons nervous. A piano prodigy who performed on Mexican radio at 14 and led his own 22-piece orchestra at 18, he commanded a fearsomely wide and varied repertoire by the time RCA brought him north in 1958. He lit up the classics (” Scheherazade“), liberated movie music (” The 3rd Man Theme“), and seemed to take particular delight in reassembling standards to his own specifications. It seems a fair bet, for example, that whatever Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael heard in their heads when composing ” Lazy Bones,” it wasn’t a jew’s-harp, nor did they imagine replacing the lyric with a lazily swung chorus of “zu-zu-zu.” But that’s how Esquivel heard it, and the transformation is exhilarating—a rocket ride from Main Street to the stars. He works similar wonders with ” All of Me,”letting a stratospheric slide guitar propel the tune over two startling tempo shifts. His own compositions were no less genre-bending. ” Whatchamacallit“sounds like something Raymond Scott might have cooked up after too many margaritas; ” Latin-Esque” puts the leader’s piano out front, then swaths it in waves of electronica, panning woozily from channel to channel.
He did love his studio tricks. Esquivel came to America at around the same time as stereo, and RCA embraced the band leader’s eccentric tendencies as a way of promoting the new technology to early adopters. The 1962 Latin-Esque LP is a great example of how liberating stereo seemed in those early days. The label released it as part of its “Stereo Action” series, (“Movement so real, your eyes will follow the sound”) and as Chusid points out in his liner notes to the 1994 compilation Space Age Bachelor Pad Music, Esquivel responded with glee, throwing every trick he had into the mix—” ‘raindrop’ pianos, mariachi trumpets, steel guitar ‘zings,’ cross-channel echoes and ‘tu-ku-tu-ku’ choruses.” His thirst for pure, complete stereo separation—the Grail of early-’60s audio enthusiasts—was so overwhelming that he actually split the orchestra in two and recorded them simultaneously in separate studios a block apart. Latin-Esque represented a peak in the career of the band leader; shortly after its release, he went on a five-year hiatus from recording, after which his output dropped sharply. “In the opinion of many,” Chusid says, “[Latin-Esque was] his wildest and most ambitious effort.”
I’m not one of those many. Wild as it was—and it was plenty wild— Latin-Esque is far from the strangest thing Esquivel ever did. He set an even higher standard of studio oddity with 1960’s See It in Sound, which was apparently so troubling to RCA that it sat unreleased in the company’s vaults for almost 40 years. An 11-piece song cycle about—well, I’m not sure what it’s about, but its ambitions are less musical than cinematic. The 1999 CD is worth seeking out for Esquivel’s take on ” Brazil” alone, in which the band leader paints a meticulous sound picture of a night on the town gone wrong. An unidentified clubgoer makes his way down rainy streets, the sound of an orchestra muffled but growing stronger, until he opens a door and the music bursts gloriously into the foreground. He eventually returns to the street, the music continuing as background until he arrives at another club; he leaves there, hails a taxi, and makes his way to a third club, the arrangement more incendiary now as a very convincing brawl breaks out to the sounds of breaking glass and running footsteps—a six-minute playlet in music and sound effects, richly detailed and powerfully weird.
If he had never made another record, Esquivel would have planted his flag with See It in Sound. It was his Pet Sounds. And maybe the comparison to Brian Wilson is more apt than it looks. Like Wilson, whose father was an Esquivel fan, Esquivel heard sounds in his head the rest of us can only imagine. Music From a Sparkling Planet, as a 1995 compilation put it—a gift in sound from four decades ago, when the world looked bright and shiny and the future was in stereo.