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An Appreciation

So Far Out, His Music Had to Come Back In

Esquivel's swanky sounds of the '50s and '60s set the Cocktail Nation tone decades later.

January 18, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like his screwball, one-of-a-kind music, Juan Garcia Esquivel's looks had a slightly out-of-this-world quality. His smooth jawline and sensuous mouth evoked the cliched image of a suave Latin Lothario. But his thick, horn-rimmed glasses and tail-fin ears gave him the geeky appearance of some distant kinsman of Buddy Holly, or perhaps an interstellar higher life form masquerading as a Las Vegas lounge lizard.

The creative tension between these dueling personas is revealing, not only about the eccentric bandleader-composer-pianist, who died earlier this month at his home in Mexico at age 83, but about the way Esquivel's wacky oeuvre has been repackaged by various listeners to meet their own psychocultural needs.

To hard-core devotees, Esquivel was a visionary, a recording artist whose quirky wit and technical proficiency spawned new musical hybrids in the 1950s and '60s. In a way, he can be seen as the godfather of today's hip-hop samplers and electronica wizards, a musical pack-rat who collected strange noises from across the planet and wove them into kooky, catchy sound collages. John Zorn, the avant-garde saxophonist and composer, has described Esquivel as "a genius arranger" who "created a beautiful pop mutation."

But in the last decade, after disappearing from the pop landscape, Esquivel received a startling make-over. Plucked from bargain-bin obscurity, he became a talisman of the so-called Cocktail Nation movement, a mostly nostalgic exercise in drinking, dressing up in vintage clothes and grooving to the sounds of yesteryear.

In that process, Esquivel's aggressively weird, experimental canon, with its bizarre instrumental combinations and heart-stopping dynamic shifts, was recast as "space age bachelor pad music," the ultimate aural aphrodisiac for young urban sophisticates. Today, in record stores, you'll find his discs innocuously shelved under "Easy Listening."

Meanwhile, Hollywood, where Esquivel labored for years, also has rediscovered his music, inserting it into films such as the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski" and "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America." A movie based on his life, starring John Leguizamo, is in the works.

How come the revival? Maybe because his prescient music triggers both nostalgia for a stylish, hi-fi past, and optimistic faith in a glowing, sci-fi future.

"He was an entertainer before he was a composer," says Byron Werner, an L.A. artist who began collecting Esquivel's out-of-print LPs in the late '70s and distributing tapes to friends like "The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening. It also was Werner, a digital artist in special effects who has worked on movies like "Star Wars" and "Titanic," who coined the term "space age bachelor pad music" to describe the composer's extraterrestrial sound.

A sly intellect matched to an exuberant temperament, Esquivel was a brilliant-plumed serpent in the garden of Eisenhower-era America, tempting middle-class suburbanites with strange new tastes. Known professionally by his surname, with an exclamation point affixed (Esquivel!), he concocted a life and an art that suggested a series of amusing question marks.

Born on Jan. 20, 1918, in Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico, he led big bands, scored for film, TV and radio, dressed like a '50s matinee idol, palled around with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Liberace and was said to have married six times (most recently his 25-year-old health-care aide).

His renown as a ladies' man was frequently noted by the press and experienced firsthand by female reporters. "He would keep male journalists on the phone for 30 minutes, the ladies two hours. And at the end he would tell them, 'You are mucha muchacha,'" says Irwin Chusid, a New Jersey-based music historian who served as Esquivel's manager in the last years of his life. Chusid also produced two Esquivel CDs for the Bar/None label, "Esquivel! Space Age Bachelor Pad Music," and a follow-up, "Esquivel: Music From a Sparkling Planet," which together have sold more than 100,000 copies.

But Esquivel's colorful personality and active libido were mere sideshows to his emphatic artistry. A prodigy who put together his first 15-piece ensemble when he was just 17, Esquivel was already a legend of Mexican TV, radio and nightclubs when RCA Victor brought him under contract to the United States in 1958. Working in both Hollywood and New York, he found mass-market success composing TV scores ("The Bob Cummings Show," "The Tall Man"), appeared on television himself and put together a successful stage show, "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel," in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas.

Continually sampling from a musical palette that included Latin, pop, folk, avant-garde and even classical influences, Esquivel produced a body of work that was playful, exciting, always unpredictable and at least a quarter-century ahead of its time.

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