Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica

The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel





I usually don‘t put disclaimers in front of the reviews I write, but I feel the urge to do it here: I am not worthy of reviewing The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel by Mr. Ho‘s Orchestrotica, the twofold project of Boston-based Jazz and Exotica guru Brian O‘Neill that consists of either a 22-piece Big Band – as is the case here – or a much more intimate third-stream vibraphone quartet with a different focus music-wise. As you may have spotted already, I reviewed it against my better judgement, but I lack one basic skill that is advisable for a reviewer of this album: the utter devotion for the conductions and stereo experiments of Mexico‘s legendary space-age pop maestro Juan García Esquivel (1918–2002).


Even though I am familiar with his work and style, I have never spent elaborate thoughts about his career, his breakthrough in stereo music and his original tunes. I do know, however, that most sheets of his music have been lost forever. Enter Brian O‘Neill who decided in late 2004 to transcribe each and every of these 11 tracks by ear! This wasn‘t done in one afternoon. Or 10. Or even 50. I cannot imagine how hard this work must have been. Luckily, O‘Neill was rewarded for his skill and endurance and can now reap the benefits of this exhausting procedure for several years: international interest in his project grew, lots of gigs in Mexico and around the U.S. followed, the album was finally released in 2010 and has been played in virtually all Starbucks stores in the U.S. – just wow! With all that in mind, I have decided to review The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel nonetheless, as its 30 minutes are just too pompous to ignore. It also reintroduced me to Esquivel‘s original conductions, and I guess this happened to many other listeners as well.


The album starts with Brian O‘Neill‘s transcription of Juan García Esquivel‘s interpretation of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona‘s Andalucia. The clichéd remark that »something starts with a blast« is totally appropriate here. The brass players cut through the air, O‘Neill plays quickly paced staccato notes on the piano and the peculiar trademark doo-doo-doo singsong found in lots of Esquivel‘s tunes is masterfully imitated by a vocal quartet on here as well. The balance between gentle trumpets and blasting brass sections, between quiet soli and sudden Big Band outbursts is highly attractive and runs as a golden thread throughout every song on the album, resulting in an eager tension all the time.


The following Night And Day is absolutely gorgeous with a quiet Hammond organ, liquid piano notes, the vocal quartet‘s soothing voices and terrific high-note brass sections with added bass trombones that bring deepness to the otherwise shimmering, gleaming composition. This is also a tune where the vocals actually have a comprehensible meaning. Definitely a favorite of mine and a fine example for program music: quiet night sections with gentle vocals and audible maracas interchange with bustling day activities realized with fortissimo brass bursts. Take The A-Train is another joyful ride, although a quieter one with a definite focus on various mallet instruments that integrate the Exotica spirit of the third-stream quartet incarnation of Mr. Ho‘s Orchestrotica with an otherwise brassy song that is interlinked with a great vocal Doppler effect.


The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams adds a slightly dejected Latin mood to the roster with cacophonous brass sections, energetic piano notes and surprisingly dominant rattles on a cha-cha-cha rhythm. In comparison, the next song Music Makers is the better piece to my mind, as it features rhythmic changes, bringing a Jazz quartet feeling to the mix for a short time, and an exquisitely dominant Hammond organ in the middle of the song.


Another song that takes control over my listening habits is the bombastic rendition of Alberto Borras Dominguez‘s classic Frenesi, and Mr. Ho‘s version is the most joyful one out there, no doubt about that! A welcome surprise are the bongos in the limelight and the short steel guitar section at the end, but the rest of the song, namely the gentle trumpet sections accompanied by cascading piano notes and, as usual, the vocal quartet‘s humming are equally welcome. Frenesi might be overloaded with instruments, so if you isolate this version from its context, it seems to be an excessive overkill, but I still think of it as a perfect introduction to Esquivel‘s sound as interpreted by Mr. Ho‘s Orchestrotica – everything that is right about the album is integrated in this particular song: playfulness, a great variation of instruments and antonymic sound intensities.


Mini Skirt is the only Esquivel original on here, and it is no song for feminists: suggestive whistling, Latinized piano notes and a clangorous percussion evoke a hot-tempered atmosphere, while the last three tunes on the album all have the word dance in their titles: Let‘s Dance features deep pianos, vast bongo sections, strongly opalescent brass section that are even more melodious than on most other songs and a timid organ that resides in the background of the track, but comes back in full force on Dancing In The Dark which otherwise concentrates on flute melodies and euphonious piano chords. The final Street Dance features a slower swing groove with deep piano notes and exploding brass sections. It is also a welcome change of the now formulaic interplay of quiet and loud sections, as the song ends the album on a much more coherent and balanced note.


The performing musicians and their bandleader Brian O‘Neill accomplished something truly magnificent: bringing Esquivel‘s sound back to life under difficult conditions, for most sheets of his music have been destroyed. The existence of this album and the outlook for similar releases by Mr. Ho‘s Orchestrotica should please every Exotica fan. With just a bit over 30 minutes, The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel stops at the right time before its pompousness starts to jade the listener. It brings back the space-age pop music not only to a new century, but a whole new millennium. The mimicry of Mr. Ho is hence totally acceptable and desirable, for this tribute to Esquivel consumed hundreds of man-hours and cannot be repeated easily. If you are the slightest bit interested in Big Band music or Esquivel‘s playful output, this is the album of your dreams.


Exotica fans need to have this, as it is the first essential Exotica record of the decade starting in 2010, in my opinion. The Hawaiian Exotica feeling or mellow sub-areas are nowhere to be found on this album, but since Mr. Ho‘s Orchestrotica has also released a vibraphone-heavy Jazz quartet album called Third River Rangoon, this could be the album you are looking for. Night And Day comes to mind once more, as both of Mr. Ho‘s albums are entirely different in terms of style, presentation, instrumentation and the selection of songs, but equally successful. The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel receives an awe-struck recommendation by me.


Further reading:

  • Amy Thyr's article on provides the backstory about the albums by Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica and risks a conjecture regarding the band's future projects.
  • A highly interesting interview between Brian O'Neill and Mark Riddle has been featured on Mark's Quiet Village Podcast, Episode 38 from, where O'Neill explains his approach and musical background regarding his albums The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel and Third River Rangoon. This is not your usual featurette of 5 minutes where the artist tells you how much he loves his fans and what he has planned for his holidays. No, Riddle talks with O'Neill for almost 30 minutes, making this one of the best in-depth interviews of the whole podcast series.
  • Brian O'Neill's Twitter account is @orchestrotica.


Exotica Review 027: Mr. Ho's Orchestrotica – The Unforgettable Sounds Of Esquivel (2010). Originally published on Jan. 28, 2012 at