ESP Disk: From Free Jazz to the Future

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The avant-garde record label ESP Disk helped blow the lid off mainstream jazz back in the ’60s and ’70s, bringing the far-out free-jazz sounds of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and other artists to adventurous listeners. Canada’s Musicworks (article not available online) reports on the label’s resurgence in recent years since founder Bernard Stollman reactivated it, releasing new recordings and reissuing the original catalog.

“The first ESP discs could look dangerous and provisional,” writes Stuart Broomer in Musicworks’ Winter 2008 issue. “The music could sound dangerous as well.”

Broomer rightfully celebrates Spiritual Unity, Ayler’s first U.S. release and ESP’s first recording, describing Ayler’s “coruscating saxophone solos … with great roaring renditions of diatonic folk themes that suddenly turned into wails and honks and runs … .” And he notes the ESP back catalog contains “undeniable masterpieces” such as Ornette Coleman’s Town Hall. But he also encourages listeners to look past obvious ESP touchstones to “the less appreciated and sometimes most visionary of the original releases, as well as some very select new recordings”–notably Solar Forge by Totem and Expedition by Hans Tammen, Alfred Harth, Chris Dahlgren, and Jay Rosen.

Bernard Stollman recently spoke to All About Jazz, and anyone who’s into non-smooth jazz should read the interview, in which he discusses ESP’s revival, archival projects like the label’s new Charlie Parker box set, and his search for “truth and beauty.” Here’s a taste:

On his approach to running the label: “It is a matter of spirit. The word I never hear around me is the word entertainment. These are not entertainers. They are thinkers. They are philosophers, and they are working toward some kind of higher–it is a language that is not explainable. I couldn’t explain it to you no matter how long I tried.”

On recorded music: “I think music should be experienced as a live phenomenon. We’ve frozen a second of their life, but the artist continues performing, creating, changing. It is just a reflection of what is possible. No more than that. Again, not an entertainment medium. I don’t think people should listen to these records. I think they should hear them, but as far as repeat listening? I don’t know how often they should repeat listening. It is about being stimulated, turned on, and inspired.”

On the state of music: “There is a current generation that represents the world as it is today and their music is just as inspiring, influential, innovative, and interesting as any other era I have lived through. Imagination, inspiration have not left the world.”

Sources: Musicworks, All About Jazz, ESP Disk

Image by Howard Bernstein, courtesy of ESP Disk.

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