Esquivel takes another swing

"Every time Mr. Sinatra was performing in Vegas, he would come to see me. He always came to the shows with a movie star like Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. I knew when he was there because he would hand the waitress a note to give me, and he would write 'Juan, please play "Bye Bye Blues."' He loved my arrangement of that one."

At 77 years old and temporarily bed-ridden from a hip injury, Juan Garcia Esquivel is only too thrilled to tell old stories of past glories again, honored to find that 30 years after his heyday he has never been more popular or revered. He is nothing less than a critic's darling whose music is now heard by millions each week behind the silicon and surf antics of Baywatch.

Worshiped by the likes of Stereolab (who, like Esquivel, are more infatuated with the sound of a song than the song itself) and Combustible Edison (a band more enamored of the cool mood), Esquivel now has at least three CDs in print where two years ago he was an unknown piece of history. He's the bona fide lounge lizard, the real thing standing tall at the bar among such post-lounge ironists as Friends of Dean Martinez and Combustible Edison. To call him another "cocktail musician" wouldn't do him justice, because his greatest output, recorded from 1958 through the late '60s, wasn't the soundtrack for the martini-and-satin crowd.

It was avant-garde before its time, brilliant experiments bought in mass quantities by crew-cutted young men with plenty of loose change to spend on a new toy, their hi-fi. And no one pushed the stereo technology to more dizzying heights, or filled it with such ecstatic music, than the man known as Esquivel.

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Last year, the Hoboken, New Jersey-based label Bar/None initiated his renaissance with the release of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, a collection of tracks he recorded for RCA from 1958-'67. (The label would follow it up a few months ago with Music From A Sparkling Planet, followed a few weeks ago by RCA's own Cabaret Maana.) Featuring his takes on everything from "Sentimental Journey" and "Begin the Beguine" to his own "Latin-esque," they're all a dizzying and brilliant mlange of sound effects and strange instruments--the theremin and steel guitars, timpanis and tuned bongos, bizarre concoctions with names like the Ondioline and the Buzzima.

"The record company never said no to one of my ideas," Esquivel says. "I was able to do anything I wanted, no matter how odd or strange the idea was...I used familiar tunes because I wanted the public to recognize my arrangements. The song is like a naked doll that I dress up the way I want. So maybe I'll draw a mustache on the doll or put a cigar in its mouth."

--David Dixon

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