The King of Space-Age Pop

Back in 1994 the release of the compilation CD Space Age Bachelor Pad Music on the Weehawken, NJ-based Bar None label put the name of Esquivel on everyone's lips again. The Mexican composer's lush exotica, which featured wordless vocals, dramatic brass arrangements, Latin flavors, full exploitation of the potential of stereo recording and mixing, and his own piano solos, will always be a very singular music. It sounds like nothing else. One little-known fact is that he actually began recording his first two records in mono prior to becoming one of the leading proponents of the possibilities of making records in stereo.

Whether Juan Garcia Esquivel is a musical genius depends I guess on your tastes (or possibly whether his music made you think of cocktails). Defying any easy categorizations, it was cooooollll in the extreme. It was marketed as sophisticated make-out music to be played in the background behind witty chatter and clinking martini glasses. Nothing screams the early 1960s quite like Esquivel's sonic confections.

Whatever it is musically, the composer did have the good fortune, and RCA had the good sense to sign him and make him a prominent part of their famed Living Stereo series. His records always sounded good whether you liked the music or not.

That sonic purity, coupled with his dynamic stereo mixing, also meant that Esquivel's otherworldly instrumental music was a favorite of early hi-fi stereo adopters as a way to show off their wonderous new gear. There was also a visual element. In the history of the Living Stereo series, whose track record on cover art is for the most part the opposite of memorable, the cover of the Mexican maestro's third album, Other Worlds Other Sounds, has over the years become thought of as something of a masterpiece. Happily, this album, which hasn't been reissued domestically on LP since 1961, has just been reissued, with famous cover art intact, on 180-gram vinyl by Marshall Blonstein's Audio Fidelity label. Mastered by Kevin Gray from an analog-to-digital transfer done by Sony Music that Gray praised and called "highly representative," the pressing is quiet, the all-important imaging bright and clear, and in the end probably a little better than my original pressing which is now over 50 years old and sounding its age.

Listening to Esquivel's music, it's clear that his music owes a lot not only to the great Raymond Scott whose music Carl Stalling adapted for use in many of the Warner Brothers iconic cartoons, but to the composers behind the exotica musical craze of the late 1950s. With Les Baxter's seminal 1951 album, Ritual of the Savage, as its widely acknowledged starting point, exotica as a musical genre poured from the pens and fertile minds of Baxter, Martin Denny, and Arthur Lyman among others. Most of the great exotica composer/arrangers had their own shtick from Martin Denny's tiki bar, South-Seas vibe to Les Baxter's fascination with outer space to Dave Pike's funky one-album knockout, Jazz for the Jet Set.

Other Worlds Other Soundshas a classy, cha-cha-cha south of the border aura. Led by Esquivel's showy piano solos, tunes like the opener, "Granada" have the super campy, wordless vocals that make his music such catnip for those addicted to kitsch. His crazy dramatic arrangement of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," complete with electric guitar, xylophone, and masses of blaring trumpets, is novel, to say the least. The best-known track from this album, a typically frenetic version of Isham Jones' "It Had To Be You," (the unofficial theme to the film When Harry Met Sally . . .) has a bawdy, loopy muted trumpet solo that mimics a gritty singer like Louis Armstrong. It also has one of Esquivel's most memorable wordless chants, "Rah Rah Rah Reh Ree."

While there's no questioning the creativity that's at work here, particularly in the restless, inventive arranging, this musical visionary's style marks do tend to repeat themselves. Although new sounds do occasionally appear, like the tenor saxophone in "That Old Black Magic," he generally repeats the same sonic blends over and over again: xylophone for humor; trumpet blasts for emphasis. Often what's novel in the first cut or two becomes less-interesting novelty by the final track. Often classed under the "Easy Listening" genre, I find his stuff a refreshing blast at first but harder to go back to a second or third time.

However, if you have yet to experience the Esquivel universe or if you have an unquenchable thirst for those heady early days of Hi-Fi, Other Worlds, Other Sounds is a classic example from perhaps the ultimate quixotic composer.

Doctor Fine's picture

It was with great sadness my wife and I noted the death of XM radio channel "On the Rocks" a few years back as it featured tons of guilty pleasures from the "Mad Men" era of HiFi.
"On the Rocks" was on my radio pretty much every single day.
It was very cool, baby.

jmattoni's picture

On the rocks, Music Lab, Special X, and Fine Tuning were some of my favorites on XM. Satellite radio never sounded very good but at least there was the content. Since the merger, it has no appeal to me at all.

deckeda's picture

Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and Music From a Sparkling Planet

Both part of what makes a collection interesting, but I doubt I’ve pulled out either record in years.

pbarach's picture

The whole album is on Youtube, so I'm saving my money for material I want to hear more than once:

Ernie Kovacs made great use of Esquivel:

jmsent's picture

..on acid!

Doctor Fine's picture

Speaking of YouTube there are hundreds of cool space age bachelor pad albums in their entirety posted up there (until someone cancels them).
I just don't want to name them as I suspect that would draw "the heat" and next thing you know they would no longer be available.
I know it is low res but my system is fun even at 128K and it is a blast to follow leads to the good stuff that is out there that I really love.
Cheers my brothers.
Let's enjoy space whoosh whoosh.....
So glad I am not the only one that loves goofy well recorded music from the mid century "Mad Men" era.