Sunday, January 19, 2003
Happy Birthday, Esquivel!
Tomorrow is the birthday of Juan Garcia Esquivel, one of the great musicians of the twentieth century. You've probably never heard of him. If he were still living, he'd be 85; he died last year shortly before his 84th birthday. He recorded albums in the 1950's and 1960's and did a lot of live shows in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, as well as writing quite a bit of music for radio and TV. He was born in Tampico, Mexico.
How did I find out about Esquivel? Well... in 1995, the L.A. Times ran an article about him titled "Finding His Niche... 35 Years Later." I found this article interesting enough to clip and keep, intending to look for some of his albums. It described his music and stated that while Esquivel was not a big success at the time of his recordings, record collectors and people interested in alternative music were now looking for his stuff and that some of his albums had been re-released on CD. His music was described as big orchestra recordings, heavy on the piano, with lots of percussion, strange stereo effects and unusual instruments being used.
So I clipped the article, promptly forgot about it and then rediscovered it almost a year later. When I unearthed it I headed over to Rhino Records in Westwood to see if they had any Esquivel CDs - and they did! I found "Music for a Sparkling Planet" (sadly no longer available), which is a compilation of cuts from several of his albums. I took it home, turned on the player, and sat down next to the stereo.
I was blown away. I had never heard music like this in my life. I'm trying to figure out how to describe it. First, the stereo effects really are fantastic. You can hear the music drifting from one side to the other (you get the best results wearing headphones or playing this in your car). His arrangements are impeccable. Although Esquivel did some original composing, most of the songs on these albums are well-known pieces like "Sentimental Journey" or "Dark Eyes." There's usually a driving rhythm, lots of percussion, excellent brass (trumpets especially - there's a Latin flavor to many of the songs), and he plays the piano like a dream.
As luck would have it, shortly after buying this album I found out that my medical group was closing down and we'd all have to find new jobs (long story). I made a tape of "Sparkling Planet" for my car and played it constantly that summer as I coped with the search for a new medical group and settling into my new job. Then I went back and bought every Esquivel CD I could find. I still play them constantly; I'd rather listen to his music than anyone else's.
Esquivel led me to other musicians - I found the Space Age Pop Music webpage, and discovered Nelson Riddle and many more musicians, and bought many more CDs! But for me, no one will ever beat "The King of Space-Age Pop."
A few excerpts from the Space Age Pop Music biography:
THE king of space-age pop. Esquivel's family moved to Mexico City in 1928, and by the early 1930s, he was appearing on radio station XEW. Self-taught as a player, composer, and arranger, he proved a prodigy, and was soon leading the station orchestra. By 1940, he had formed his own band, with 22 musicians and 5 vocalists. Much like Pedro Camacho, the soap opera writer in Vargas Llosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter," Esquivel honed his writing and conducting abilities providing the background music for a daily radio show starring the comedian Panseco. "He'd ask things like 'Can you play something that sounds like a Russian guy walking through China?' and somehow, I would do it," Esquivel later recalled.
RCA contracted with Esquivel in late 1957, first releasing one of his Mexican albums in the U.S. as "To Love Again." The label brought Esquivel to record in Hollywood in early 1958. He was given five hours of studio time to record the album ("Other Worlds, Other Sounds"), but he finished the job with 90 minutes to spare and cut a second album, "Four Corners of the World," with a small combo.
Most of Esquivel's recordings start with much the same big band with vocal chorus foundation as Ray Conniff and others, but his arrangements take every element to its limit. On "Latin-esque," he went to the extreme of channel separation by placing two orchestras in studios a block apart and mixing the result live in the booth. If Roger Williams uses a four octave run in his version of "Autumn Leaves," Esquivel would use six and split them among six different instruments, starting on the right channel and moving over to the left in the process. It's fitting that Esquivel's name was usually printed with an exclamation point: his trademark is the musical exclamation point, whether it's a "Pow!" sung by the chorus or a "zing" from a harpsichord.
You've probably heard at least one Esquivel composition, even if you don't know it. Remember the three seconds of bombastic trumpet music that used to run at the end of TV shows produced by Universal? "Bum bum BUM-bum bum BUM-BUM-BUMMMM!" Well, he composed that. I wonder if he got residuals for it... it must have run at least a hundred thousand times.