This month sees the centenary of Juan García Esquivel, the Mexican composer, arranger, and bandleader best-known by his last name, often buoyantly accented with an exclamation point. (The punctuation, he remembered, originated as an enthusiastic promotion on a Lake Tahoe marquee, an emphasis Esquivel promptly adopted.) In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Esquivel epitomized one of the era's more kaleidoscopic niches — lounge music — producing intricate, high-toned renditions of popular standards, Latin numbers, and evocative originals.
Born on Jan. 20, 1918, in Tampico, Mexico, Esquivel was a self-taught prodigy. At the age of 14, he was on Mexico City radio, playing piano for a daily comedy show hosted by comedian Arturo Manrique. Esquivel soon formed his own orchestra, learning his craft in rehearsal, building up arrangements instrument by instrument, phrase by phrase. (It was a working style shared with another pop-music free spirit, American bandleader Raymond Scott.)
Esquivel's debut US album release was a 1957 collection, “To Love Again,” but it was his next album, “Other Worlds, Other Sounds,” that fully established his brand: tight, Latin-tinged arrangements featuring unusual instruments, swooping glissandi, quirky vocal interjections (“pow!” “zu-zu-zu!”), and cutting-edge recording techniques. (Esquivel's experimental approach in the studio was sometimes acknowledged in his album titles: “Exploring New Sounds in Hi-Fi,” “Infinity in Sound.”) Still, the brand resisted categorization. Cocktail pop? Sci-fi exotica? The title of a later Esquivel compilation, “Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music,” perhaps came closest.
In a 2005 article, scholar Bill Oglesby took a closer look at the bachelor pad, specifically, the plethora of plans and images of such spaces published in men’s magazines like “Rogue,” “Escapade,” and, especially, “Playboy.” Oglesby situated the bachelor pad in a post-World War II wave of specifically masculine hedonism. But unlike other spaces dedicated to masculine pleasure — old-school, oak-paneled Victorian clubs, perhaps, or the chockablock, frat-like 21st-century man cave — the ’50s bachelor pad was purposefully design-forward, the smooth lines and surfaces of midcentury modernism streamlining sybaritic fantasy into cool refinement.
It's an aesthetic paralleled in Esquivel's music: piquant, polished, all neat creases and precisely draping curves, both unapologetically sensual and unflappably controlled. After his lounge-music vogue dissolved, he went on to a successful career writing scores for television; he lived long enough to see the music of his heyday come back into wry style. An injury left him bedridden for much of his final decade, but not long before his 2002 death, interviewed by artist and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Esquivel still refused to rule out another comeback. “I’m 82 years old, so who knows what destiny has to serve to me,” he reflected. “But if time allows, I’ll be ready for any new venture.” He was ever in pursuit of the exclamation point.