Remembering Bernard Stollman: 10 Essential ESP-Disk Albums
Bernard Stollman died this week at 85. Unknown to most but a legend to many, he was one of the most important non-musicians in the history of the 1960s jazz avant-garde. Stollman, a lawyer, founded the ESP-Disk label in 1964, initially so he could release Ni Kantu En Esperanto, an album of songs and poetry in Esperanto (a language invented in the 1880s and intended to transcend national boundaries and thus foster international peace and understanding). The imprint’s second release, though, turned out to be one of the landmark jazz albums of all time — saxophonist Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. Scorching and raw, this trio session can still take the top of your skull off.
Over the next few years, ESP-Disk released well over 100 titles, ranging from free jazz to avant-garde rock to vintage live recordings by Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. Eventually, the money ran out, and ESP-Disk stopped releasing records in the mid ’70s. Stollman went on to work in the New York State Attorney General’s office for decades. But portions of the catalog were licensed for reissue in the 1990s and early 2000s, and in 2005, Stollman re-activated the label, signing new acts, re-taking possession of the catalog, and perhaps most importantly, striving to pay royalties to artists who claimed they’d been ripped off for decades. (The actual sales figures for free jazz are generally dismal, but there was definitely some shady accounting going on back in the day, as has pretty much always been the case in the music business.) The last release he personally signed off on, a duo CD by saxophonist Mat Walerian and pianist Matthew Shipp, will be out soon.
In the gallery above is a list of 10 essential ESP-Disk releases. They’re all from the jazz side of the catalog, because let’s be honest, nobody’s that interested in the Fugs or Cromagnon in 2015. But Albert Ayler’s music remains as amazing as ever.
Dive in here.
Giuseppi Logan Quartet - Giuseppi Logan Quartet (1965)
Giuseppi Logan was a reeds player (mostly alto sax, but many other instruments besides) who was working with trumpeter/composer Bill Dixon in the early 1960s, but it was Milford Graves who brought him to the attention of Bernard Stollman. According to Stollman, when the band was walking into the studio to record this album, Logan said to him, "If you rob me, I'll kill you."
The band on this album features Don Pullen on piano (making his recorded debut), Eddie Gomez on bass, and Milford Graves on both drums and tabla. The five compositions have a kind of lurching swing; Pullen's hands tumble across the keys in a sort of clanging, barroom approach to free jazz, while Graves's drumming creates a pulsating rhythm without worrying about momentum, and Gomez keeps busy plucking and throbbing between them. Logan's style is unique; it seems almost untutored at times, but he's actually got exquisite control of the horn, and any raggedness or rawness in his phrasing is entirely deliberate. Unfortunately, after making one more album for ESP-Disk, and working with trombonist Roswell Rudd and vocalist Patty Waters, he disappeared from the scene for over three decades; many people thought he was dead. In 2008, he returned to New York, and has since made three albums, backed by younger musicians.
Sun Ra - The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra (1966)
This one is sort of a cheat. The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Volumes 1 and 2 were issued on separate LPs in 1966, while Volume 3 was compiled from previously unreleased session tapes in the 2000s, and they were all combined into this three-CD set in 2010. But each volume is different from the others, and they're all equally essential, so this is the way to approach this material.
The music on Volume 1, recorded in spring 1965, is broken into seven shortish tracks, ranging from 1:56 ("Dancing In The Sun") to 7:40 ("Outer Nothingness"). Some of them are free but swinging, while others are abstract and blaring. Volume 2 is even more extreme, containing an 18-minute piece, a 15-minute piece, and a five-minute interlude between them. Volume 3 splits the difference, with four pieces each running between four and six minutes, and one 17-minute epic. Among these 15 tracks you get a little bit of just about everything Sun Ra ever did, from loopy large-ensemble charts (the Arkestra -- that's what he called his band -- had 11 members at this time) to spacey synthesizer tones to clattering percussion eruptions. The only thing not heard here is the human voice; many Sun Ra songs had lyrics, and others featured chanted slogans, but none of that was recorded for the Heliocentric albums, which were entirely instrumental.
Revolutionary Ensemble - Vietnam (1972)
The Revolutionary Ensemble were a fascinatingly anomalous group within the free jazz scene. The trio of violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone, and drummer Jerome Cooper made music that had the stark, intellectual rigorousness of modern classical, blended with the raw energy of hillbilly fiddling and the ferocity of avant-garde jazz. Vietnam, a single extended performance split into two parts, was their debut album, originally released in the early 1970s.
The interaction between Jenkins and Sirone is extremely intense. The bassist's tone is huge, often blowing out into distortion as he strikes the strings with seismic force. Meanwhile, the violin shifts back and forth between high-speed, gypsy-hillbilly sawing and slow, mournful passages. Cooper's drumming is more accent than engine, occasionally intruding on the violin-bass dialogue but mostly letting the other two men do their thing and interjecting a snare roll or quick flicker of the cymbals from the background. It's not until the beginning of the album's second half that he erupts, kicking things off with a five-minute drum solo that wipes away everything that came before.
Frank Lowe - Black Beings (1973)
Memphis-born tenor saxophonist Frank Lowe first appeared on Alice Coltrane's World Galaxy; this album, his debut as a leader, was also the first studio session for bassist William Parker, who has gone on to be basically the load-bearing pillar holding up the New York free jazz scene in the 1980s, '90s, and 2000s. The band also includes Art Ensemble Of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman, violinist Raymond Cheng (originally credited as "The Wizard"), and drummer Rashid Sinan. The music, recorded live, is unfettered and highly potent. Jarman's saxophone solos (he plays alto and soprano; Lowe sticks to tenor) are like sustained screams, while the leader's responses start out cleaner and more melodic, but eventually become quite intense. Parker strums the strings with thunderous force, and bows like he's trying to saw the neck from the body. Cheng's violin playing is wild and noisy, maintaining the high-velocity, high-energy feel of the performance as a whole. Rashid Sinan, meanwhile, is the engine that drives it all. He never settles into a rattling, polyrhythmic free jazz patter; instead, he attacks the kit with machine-gun snare, crashing cymbals, and kick drum work worthy of a hard rock player.
Black Beings was originally one of the final jazz releases on ESP-Disk before the label folded; a few years ago, it was reissued on CD with additional material added. The opening track grew from 25 minutes to 33, and the third piece swelled to 22 minutes from 16. There's also a second disc of material from the same night, The Loweski, that was released separately in 2012 and is worth hearing for fans of the original album.
New York Art Quartet - New York Art Quartet (1964)
The New York Art Quartet were one of ESP-Disk's earliest signings; their debut album was only the fourth release on the label, following Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity and Pharoah Sanders's Pharoah's First. The group featured trombonist Roswell Rudd, Dutch tenor saxophonist John Tchicai, bassist Lewis Worrell, and drummer Milford Graves, and made music that was radically different from the free jazz of the time. It was much more sparse and spacious, almost like chamber music -- Worrell's bowed bass had the emotional resonance of a cello, and behind him, Graves' drumming was free but highly complex and intuitive. His sticks landed like snow flurries, drifting across the kit in skittering rushes, never worrying about timekeeping but focused on an overall vitality and energy.
The horn players stayed away from volcanic solos, instead allowing their lines to unfold slowly, and interacting with each other like they were composing funeral hymns on the spot. And on the second track, "Black Dada Nihilismus," they stepped away entirely, allowing poet Amiri Baraka to take the microphone with Worrell and Graves surging and rippling behind him. Living up to their name, the New York Art Quartet proved that free jazz could be subtle and artistic beyond the superficial fire and fury that was its image with the broader public.
Sunny Murray - Sunny Murray (1966)
Drummer Sunny Murray was crucial to the New York free jazz scene of the early 1960s. He first made his name playing with Cecil Taylor, where his powerhouse style perfectly matched the pianist's highly percussive, baroque approach to the keyboard. Murray wasn't interested in timekeeping so much as creating a continuous avalanche of percussion, which included relentless hi-hat, slashing cymbals, and a thunderous kick-and-snare rumble. The overall effect was more apocalyptic than rhythmic, and it forced the horn players who worked with him to up their game, erupting in screaming, cathartic solos that seemed to abandon melody in favor of pure sound.
Murray's sole ESP-Disk release, a self-titled album from 1966, is as ferocious as anything in his catalog. It features trumpeter Jacques Coursil, alto saxophonists Jack Graham and Byard Lancaster, and bassist Alan Silva. The album's four tracks are sustained explosions, with Coursil and Lancaster taking fiery (and, in the trumpeter's case, florid and lyrical) solos and Graham pairing up with the other saxophonist for fanfare-like riffs that recall the horn blasts on early Little Richard singles. Silva does a lot of work with the bow, taking a terrific, mournful solo at the end of the opening track, "Phase 1,2,3,4." Murray's drumming is itself one long solo; he never stops, never lets the energy flag. Listening to this album is like running up four flights of stairs.
Albert Ayler / Don Cherry / John Tchicai / Roswell Rudd / Gary Peacock / Sunny Murray - New York Eye And Ear Control (1964)
An all-star, fully improvised soundtrack to an avant-garde film by Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow, this album is a fascinating departure for almost everyone involved. Following a shimmering, one-minute intro by trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist Gary Peacock (playing with a bow), the entire ensemble launches into the first of two 20-plus-minute pieces that have a superficial similarity to "free jazz," but by dispensing with even the most rudimentary melody, starting virtually from zero, somehow move into the realm of pure sculpted sound.
The core of the group -- Ayler, Peacock, and Murray -- is the same as on Spiritual Unity, but the addition of Cherry, second saxophonist John Tchicai, and trombonist Roswell Rudd, radically changes the dynamic. Since his time with Ornette Coleman, Cherry's music was both lighthearted and introspective, never angry or aggressive. Rudd, for his part, was a raucous entertainer, his trombone lines swooping and bulging with energy. When either one of them takes the spotlight, the music shifts into a less intense, more purely pleasurable zone, like walking out of a New York alley and feeling the sun hit your face. Because the movie itself is so abstract, there's no need to worry about listening to the album without seeing it; the music exists on its own, beautiful and endlessly fascinating.
Frank Wright - Your Prayer (1967)
Frank Wright was an absolutely fire-breathing saxophonist, even more aggressively "out" than Albert Ayler. His playing had a gospel-inflected fervor (his nickname was "The Reverend"), but he almost entirely ignored melody in favor of reed-chewing and atonal screeches. He was particularly fond of heading all the way into the tenor saxophone's upper register, emitting long, piercing squeals.
Wright's first album, a self-titled trio date also on ESP-Disk, was gruff and clattery in the extreme. Here, he's part of a larger band, joined by trumpeter Jacques Coursil, alto saxophonist Arthur Jones, bassist Steve Tintweiss, and drummer Muhammad Ali, younger brother of Rashied Ali. The other horns treat the melodies like fanfares, announcing Wright before he steps up for a fierce solo, but on pieces like "No End" and particularly the nearly 13-minute "Fire Of Spirits," everyone gets to have their say. Tintweiss's extended bass solo is actually a highlight of the disc, though the real secret weapon is Coursil's trumpet. Ali's drumming is frantic and ferocious throughout, wiping out the landscape like a forest fire.
Noah Howard Quartet - Noah Howard Quartet (1966)
Alto saxophonist Noah Howard assembled a quartet of little-known players for his 1965 debut. Like himself, trumpeter Ric Colbeck, bassist Scotty Holt, and drummer Dave Grant were excellent musicians, but somewhat on the fringes of what had already become a "scene" with stars (Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders) and hierarchies. Only ESP-Disk was willing to take a chance on Howard, and they were right to do so. His music, though it owes something to Ornette Coleman in the way the saxophone and trumpet interact, as well as the loose but bluesy structures, has a compelling energy that never erupts into the kind of screaming frenzy that was rapidly becoming the cliché of free jazz. Instead, it makes a far subtler statement.
The album's opening cut, "Henry's Street," begins with a bowed melody from Holt, and a slow-paced horn intro, only launching into high-speed (and swinging) interaction after a full minute of table-setting. And it's Colbeck, not Howard, who takes the first solo. Throughout the album, the saxophonist is an equal member of the ensemble, blowing right alongside the trumpeter on the two-part "Apotheosis" and the closing ballad, "And About Love." Howard would record one more album for ESP-Disk, the live At Judson Hall, but wouldn't really make a name for himself until a few years later, when his album The Black Ark introduced tenor madman Arthur Doyle to the world. He headed for Paris at the end of the decade, where he paired up with saxophonist Frank Wright for several years, and eventually built a career for himself in Europe and South Africa. But this debut still stands as a major statement, an oft-overlooked gem in the ESP-Disk catalog.
Albert Ayler Trio - Spiritual Unity (1965)
The one that started it all. Saxophonist Albert Ayler sounded like no one else on Earth; his melodies had a singsong, pre-blues feel, like something a marching band might have played a hundred years earlier, and his tone was both booming and sandpapery at once. Sometimes he rises to ecstatic heights, shrieking and roaring through the horn, but he's just as capable of murmuring, introspective phrases. He's one of the most human-sounding jazz musicians ever to pick up an instrument, and it's that raw, pure spirituality, shaped by extremely sophisticated technique, that makes his work so fascinating, even decades after his death.
This trio, with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, plays music of uncompromising freedom. Following the initial melodic statements of pieces like "Ghosts" (of which two versions are heard), "The Wizard," and "Spirits," the music can go in any direction at all, and either Ayler or Peacock can take the lead. Murray never plays a traditional beat, mostly focusing on the cymbals and only occasionally attacking the kit itself. While the album was recorded in mono, it nevertheless has an extremely full and reverberant room sound, which draws you in; it's like you're sitting on the floor in the middle of these three men as they create this astonishing music in front of you.