By Chris Willman
Updated January 19, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

THERE’S NO telling how many toasts have been made in the name of Esquivel since the nation’s nouveau cocktail trend got seriously under way a few years back. To the sharkskin set, pining for a time when martini consumption was mandatory and horn charts were always in a major key, this rediscovered composer-arranger is, above all other tiki deities, the object of devotion.

But don’t call the wildly inventive arrangements on which Esquivel built his singular name in the late ’50s and ’60s ”lounge music” — even if his popular rep at the time was based as much on a 12-year stint at the Stardust in Vegas as on his intermittently successful recordings. ”When they say that it’s kind of ‘space-age pop,’ that I can agree with,” says Esquivel (first names, Juan Garcia), now 78, on the phone from his native Mexico. ”But my music is not lounge music! I recorded with a big band. And they have said that my music is ‘easy listening.’ My music is not easy to listen to!”

Fair enough. In a meticulous Esquivel arrangement, brightened by bizarre, ping-ponging stereo speaker effects, anything can happen: Blasts of trumpet give way to a few sly bars of Hawaiian guitar, or a sweet samba is interrupted by the sound of a voice cooing ”Woo-ee, bay-bee, you really blow my mind!” Camp? Sure. Genius? That too. To get an idea of how Esquivel instrumentally reinvents familiar standards, think of Nelson Riddle on acid: ”What I do is take a melody and imagine that I have in my hands a beautiful doll, but I strip her out of her clothes and have a nude. Then I can dress her with a French costume, or a Swiss, or whatever nationality I give to her. Or perhaps I can draw a mustache on her, or put a cigar in her mouth.” Hello, Dali!

The unexpected success of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, a 1994 Bar/None Esquivel best-of, inspired a sequel (Music From a Sparkling Planet) as well as reissues of individual albums from RCA and Reprise and the inclusion of two of his tunes on the Four Rooms soundtrack. ”Perhaps I was a little bit ahead of my time,” says Esquivel, recovering from a bad fall last month, but itching to come out of retirement. ”I have much more modern ideas now. I just hope my new music doesn’t have to wait another 35 years to be accepted.” Tens of thousands of devotees will raise a glass to that.