The Tao of Esteban

Confounding all his critics, an aging Scottsdale lounge guitarist transforms himself into the heartthrob of TV's Home Shopping Network

Esteban likes to say that there's no precedent for the kind of music he's making, that it's a revolutionary ethnic fusion of styles.

But if Esteban's musical approach owes a debt to anyone, it's not Segovia, or some modern world-beat artist. It's Liberace, the patron saint of Vegas kitsch.

Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.
Paolo Vescia
Man in black: Esteban, flanked by guitar cases and a Harley-Davidson pinball machine, relaxes in the music room of his Tempe home.

Liberace, like Esteban, was a classically trained musician who realized there was more money to be made doing frilly, pseudo-classical versions of lightweight pop songs than attempting to compete with serious concert pianists.

While Esteban convincingly argues that he started playing pop music because he genuinely liked it, some of his detractors suggest that practicality played a part in the move. They doubt that he would have ever been able to make a mark on the classical world.

"One has to realize the playing field," Bart says. "There are 12-year-old kids who are virtuosos compared to Esteban. At best, he's a remedial classical guitarist."

Liberace's bejeweled costumes and trademark candelabras may have made him a joke to serious music aficionados, but his power was with the silent majority, which didn't care about musical authenticity, but simply wanted to be entertained.

This same crowd gasps at Esteban's every glissando.

"I can't tell you how many times people have come up and said, 'I've never even listened to music, but I really find that I can listen to this all the time,'" Brock says.

One of those fans, a woman from Pennsylvania, called into QVC last November during Esteban's showcase. She asked the host: "Is that the most exciting and sexy music you've ever heard?" The woman said she'd seen him for the first time in Scottsdale, and was so impressed that the following year she rerouted a vacation so she could see him perform again.

The Esteban experience was a bit less exhilarating for Devon Bridgewater, a jazz musician who played violin and trumpet for Esteban for four and a half years, until he was fired by the guitarist.

"It was one of the most embarrassing situations I was ever in as a musician," Bridgewater says. "Because other musicians would walk into the lobby after working in different parts of the hotel, and they'd just look at me and shake their heads, like, 'How can you be doing that, man?'"

He says when Esteban went through a 1996 divorce, he asked Bridgewater a few questions about his own divorce, but aside from that, Esteban never opened up to him.

"I never went to his house, I never knew where he lived," Bridgewater says. "And we never rehearsed. When we went in for a recording session, I never got to hear any of the playbacks, and I was never invited to any of the mixdown sessions. When I heard it, it was already packaged, and there were a lot of things I thought I could have done better."

As for Esteban's musicianship, Bridgewater acknowledges that the guitarist "has got a good right hand," but says he's limited in his ability to improvise with his previously injured left hand, and as a result, the musical arrangements tend to be mind-numbingly repetitive.

Bridgewater also found Esteban's song introductions to be rife with questionable anecdotes.

"He'd say, 'This song was found in an archaeological dig in Egypt in the '20s and we found it and have written it out.' And it was just some kind of minor scale. I mean, there's no notation from Egypt. He'd tell people some song was found on a piece of papyrus in the temple of the gods. I don't know how people bought into it."

Bridgewater says in 1998, Esteban contacted him on his pager and fired him, with no warning. He offered the standard "creative differences" rationale, but Bridgewater had a hard time believing it.

"He said, 'I'm taking the band in a different direction,'" Bridgewater says. "But, after that, it was just the same old 30-minute versions of 'Don't Cry for Me Argentina.'"

Esteban is a major record label's dream. He's a hard-working artist with a built-in following that isn't dependent on radio airplay or positive reviews.

He says he's currently being courted by Warner Bros., Sony, Atlantic and Universal, among others. He can't decide whether he wants to sign with a major label, but he knows one thing for sure: He's tired of dealing with business issues.

"I want to play, bro," he says. "I just want to play and write. I don't want to have anything else going on. Because life is so complicated, if you take on other things, it gets hard to focus."

For someone so comfortable with the hard-sell hustle of home-shopping television, he gets remarkably cosmic when he talks about his music.

"This is really a quiet voice in a world of noise and confusion," he says of his sound. "So it's something that's appropriate for the times. We're so bombarded by outside influences and by nonpeaceful entities, that it's really nice to have peace. And that's what it brings people. And that's what's gratifying.

"The world is kind of like a penal colony at times. And one of the things that helps is beautiful music that people can relate to and think of good times in their lives."

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What?  Fourteen years and no comments, not even from the haters?  I love this guy's music and wish I had 1/50 the skills and playing ability.  Oh well, keep pickin', Maestro.

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