Monday, June 15, 2009

Profile: Juan Garcia Esquivel

(Due to B-Side's distinctly unmethodical editorial madness, this 1994 feature was never published--even though Esquivel and the "Space Age Bachelor Pad" craze in which he was regarded as a god were all the rage at the time. I spoke with him over the phone, racking up a very expensive long-distance bill. But the pleasure of the experience was more than sufficient compensation. The story into which I turned that conversation appears here--fifteen years after it was supposed to run and seven years after Esquivel's death--for the first time.)

No matter what the Lollapalooza folks say, the comeback of the year does not belong to Johnny Cash. It belongs to Juan Garcia Esquivel--Esquivel, to his fans--the seventy-six-year-old, Mexican pianist and big-band leader whose first U.S. release in twenty-seven years, Esquivel! (Bar/None), has provoked praise from Matt Groening, Stereolab, and the guys at Seattle's seminal Sub Pop Records, to name just a few. This despite the fact that all of the album's fourteentracks were previously released between 1958 and 1967, before many of Esquivel's new admirers were even born.

"Sub Pop sent me a CD called High Swinger from a group called Combustible Edison," recalls Esquivel from his brother's home in Mexico. "I wouldn't say that they are copying me, but very curiously I found some of my ideas brought in by this group, some of my effects, some of my combinations of changing moods and the mix of dynamics from pianissimos to fortissimos. Combustible Edison is not exactly a rock group. It is a modern group. I don't say that they are copying me, but they are presenting some of my ideas."

Those ideas, incidentally, lest any Generation X-er get the wrong impression, have nothing to do with grunge, industrial, punk, heavy metal, or rap. Las Vegas is more like it, or "space-age, bachelor-pad music"--a phrase coined by the Los Angeles artist Byron Werner to describe the dynamically experimental sounds of pre-Beatles pop music and the unofficial title of the Bar/None compilation. Easy listening? Not with horns, xylophones, onomatopoetic vocals, and myriad percussion zipping around from speaker to speaker. For sheer joie de vivre, Esquivel's renditions of "Sentimental Journey," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Begin the Beguine"--three highlights of the new collection--remain untouched.

"When I heard for the first time that Mr. Byron Werner called me the 'king of space-age, bachelor-pad music,' I said, 'What in the name of heaven is that?'" he laughs. "I didn't know if I was supposed to be complimented or if it was some kind of a reprimand."

Esquivel, who's been bed- and wheelchair-ridden since he broke his hip in the summer of '93, has a theory as to why his music has found new life thirty years after its creation: It's a link to a time when elegance and decorum preserved ideas of love and dignity that fashion now derides.

"My generation was much more romantic. We had a more romantic type of style, and it reflected our ways of being. Nowadays it's easier to approach the opposite sex, for instance, and that goes also for the girls. They are more free. It's amazing.

"I started when I was very young. When I was seventeen, I had a big band, twenty-two pieces. But in my relationships, in my dating, for instance, the approach to the girls was very important. Those were the days of flowers. Not that nowadays the flowers don't impress the girls. They do. But it was also the time of serenades. That's a custom that I did not find in the United States. To approach a girl--to court--was so different, was with a certain kind of music and with flowers and serenades. I don't know if you are familiar with the trio that was very popular at some time in the States as well as in Mexico, Los Panchos? They were a trio of singers playing guitars, singing love songs and what could be described as country music, a ranchero-type of music. But they were love songs. Nowadays the thing to do is go to a disco. It's completely different in the approach, in music as well as in the romantic life."

Esquivel does not view all of these differences as bad. In fact, he admits to liking many types of rock music, despite the fact that rock was more or less responsible for shoving him and others like him out of the limelight.

"I like rock. I've liked it since the Beatles because it's nice music, well-done. Some of the songs are beautiful. But nowadays, when I listen to rock music, I think that sometimes it's so overexaggerated, especially in noise."

He chuckles. "Still it's good as an expression of the youth, and it's a new style of demonstrating the rhythm section especially. And the newer generation--it's amazing how they are moved by the rhythm. I see young kids--from four, five years--moving when they listen to the rhythms. And I guess that's the difference between my generation and the current generation. The generation nowadays, they are accustomed to radio, TV, and movies, so they have developed a more accurate sense of rhythm than we had."

Inspired by the reception his work has found among people young enough to be his children and, in some cases, grandchildren, Esquivel has begun to plot his return to arranging and recording, a task he hopes to undertake as soon as his rehabilitation is finally complete.

"I would love to treat some of the Rolling Stones' and some of the Beatles' music. I have my eyes on 'Yesterday.' I'd also be very happy to get some of the up-to-date rock groups and to have their material to see how I can treat this music, this current music.

"I don't think that the rock group has to be just four or five or six musicians. I think they can take the good brass section and a good background of choral, mixed-group voices, girls and boys --"

He pauses.

"My mind is so full of ideas. I would like to take an excursion, take a ride, on the idea of listening to up-to-date music and trying to make it different without losing the idea of the up-to-date composer.

"I think I will do that."

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