April 25th, 2015
In the wake of the passing of our founder earlier this week, the tributes and obituaries have been flowing in. For instance, in The New York Times, Nate Chinen wrote that “ESP-Disk provided an indispensable chronicle of the free jazz of the 1960s, and a series of provocations from the psychedelic counterculture.”
Our favorite tribute focuses firmly on Bernard’s musical legacy: Phil Freeman’s great piece for Stereogum. Besides citing Bernard as “one of the most important non-musicians in the history of the 1960s jazz avant-garde,” Mr. Freeman also astutely points out the greatness of Noah Howard (whose two ESP-Disk’ albums will be reissued later this year) and reminds that ESP-Disk’ isn’t just an oldies label by mentioning the last album Bernard chose to issue, Live at Okuden by The Uppercut: Matthew Shipp Mat Walerian Duo (officially released this coming Tuesday, April 28).
The New York Times
Sad news here at ESP-Disk’. Our beloved founder passed away on early Monday morning, April 20, of complications related to cancer. He was 85. We will pass along the details of a memorial service in NYC next month once it has been arranged.
Here is an obituary written by his brother Steve Stollman:
In the early 1960s something was brewing, and one of the people who turned up the heat was Bernard Stollman. His first release was entitled Ni Kantu in Esperanto (We sing in Esperanto) and in recent years he was supporting efforts to develop language-translation programs based on the use of this artificial language as an intermediate step in more accurate and natural transitions from one tongue to another.
His greatest contribution, though, was in the release of albums by such eventual Jazz luminaries as Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, and establishment-challenging groups like the Fugs, establishing his reputation as an important mold-breaker and critic of the status quo. One of the changes he pursued was the granting to the performing artists of complete creative control of the material being recorded. While that may often be the rule today, it was virtually unheard of at the time. Producers and record company executives exerted their influence over what was heard in an absolute way, and the granting of this right to performers was an antidote, opposing this practice over time.
A lawyer whose clients sometimes included well-known performers such as Dizzy Gillespie, he also was an Assistant Attorney General for New York State for ten years. In recent years he was instrumental in making available rare recordings by Billie Holiday and other revered jazz performers. The book Always in Trouble (Wesleyan University Press) combined his autobiography with oral histories collected by Jason Weiss that documented his career and its many ramifications included many varied accounts of those tumultuous times, as related by the musicians he recorded. He was a confidante and adviser to many of them over their careers.
He was convinced that ESP-Disk’ was so unpopular with certain elements of the power structure, due to its circulation of what was considered “dangerous” sounds, that a successful attempt was made to sink his company. He discovered that his recordings of such once-popular groups as the Fugs and Pearls Before Swine were being bootlegged in large numbers, thus undermining the economic viability of his enterprise. Songs such as “Kill for Peace” and the anti-war classic “Uncle John” were regarded as unpatriotic. The collusion of nefarious elements in the music industry with governmental authorities was sufficient to put him, in effect, out of business by the mid-’70s.
Polytonal, polyrhythmic, free improvisational music put aside all of the conventions that had characterized jazz previously. The results were also considered disruptive, and disturbing as well, which added to the motivation to put a lid on his pioneering enterprise. In fact, this music was also dismissed by many players of the more established versions, though over time such giants as John Coltrane accepted musicians such as Pharaoh Sanders, whose first album was on ESP, into their groups, and these distinctions have largely disappeared. Having just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formation of his company, so many of the radical changes that he initiated have now become commonplace. Independent record labels, a rare anomaly when he began, are now the dominant force in the industry. Few realize the hard work and courage that it took to foment these changes and those who were willing to flaunt the rules to make creative efforts prevail. “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk” was the motto, and it was true.
Mr. Stollman, who passed away on early Monday morning, April 19, was 85 years old, a child of Eastern European immigrants. He had no children and is survived by three brothers and two sisters.
May 22nd, 2014
Happy birthday to Sun Ra, born May 22, 1914. He claimed to be from Saturn, but he was originally named Herman Poole Blount from Birmingham, Alabama. However, from late 1952 until the end of his life in 1993, his legal name was Le Sony’r Ra. And bassist Juni Booth has a story about when Birmingham, which eventually became proud of its native, presented Sun Ra with the key to the city. During the ceremony, Sun Ra told him, “I hate this fuckin’ town, that’s why I always told people I was from Saturn.” (Thanks to The Hound for this great anecdote.)
Sun Ra’s big band, dubbed the Arkestra (with a nearly infinite number of expanded variations on the name) was jazz’s longest-lasting avant-garde big band (it existed for four decades), and he ranks among the most original innovators in music history. John Coltrane, George Clinton, and Sonic Youth were just a few of those influenced by his music, their diversity shows the breadth of his impact, which extended across genre boundaries.
ESP-Disk’ owner Bernard Stollmen met Sun Ra in 1964 at the October Revolution in Jazz. He invited Sun Ra to record for his new label, and Sun Ra in turn invited him to a loft concert the Arkestra was giving in Newark. Two LPs were recorded for the initial batch of ESP releases in 1965, the percussion-heavy Heliocentric Worlds vols. 1 and 2. In recent years a third volume, consisting of outtakes, was released, and then all three volumes were packaged together in a deluxe three-disc set, currently the only way this material is physically in print, although the separate volumes are available as downloads.
In May 1966 the Arkestra was part of ESP’s package tour of upstate New York college, which resulted in the concert album Nothing Is…, currently available in expanded form on the two-CD set College Tour Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is… It offers the Arkestra in its more usual style, rather than the one-off drum-centric Heliocentric Worlds LPs.
Stollman and Ra reconnected in 1971 when the Arkestra arrived back in New York from its trip to Egypt, lacking enough money to get home from the airport. As he recounts in Jason Weiss’s book Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America:
“He called me at 11:00 PM, and I drove to the airport in my old station wagon, paid for cabs, and he came with me back to Manhattan….
“He told me how he was stopped at the Egyptian border by a guard, who examined his passport and was affronted – Sun Ra, in the Ptolemaic religion, is the term for a deity! He wasn’t going to admit Ra and his musicians into the country. Sun Ra asked the guard to call the director of the Egyptian museum, who rushed out to the airport and engaged Sun Ra in conversation. They talked Egyptology, including hieroglyphics. Ra had studied the Rosicrucians; he was knowledgeable about Egyptian lore. The director said to the guard, ‘He is who he says he is. Let him in.’ He invited Ra to appear on Egyptian television.”
A couple of years later, even as ESP struggled to stay in business, the label produced a Town Hall concert by the Arkestra on December 22, 1973, released as Concert for the Comet Kohoutek.
The most recently released Sun Ra album in the ESP catalog actually has the earliest recording date: Sun Ra Featuring Pharoah Sanders & Black Harold, a 1964 New Year’s Eve concert. It includes a version of “Rocket Number 9,” the song that Lady Gaga cribbed from for her recent hit “Venus.”
April 1st, 2014
ESP-Disk’ 50th Anniversary Tees now on Sale for all of April! (No joke!)
Most anniversary years last, well, one year. But ESP-Disk’ doesn’t believe in doing things like everyone else does them. OUR anniversary lasts THREE years. Our first record, the Esperanto one that gave the label its name, came out in 1963. We just finished celebrating that year. Our first JAZZ recordings were done in 1964. That’s what we’re celebrating this year. And our first jazz LPs were issued in 1965. See? Three-year anniversary.
Don’t be an April fool, grab one of these nifty T-shirts right away!
February 27th, 2014
One of our top signings of 2013, the husband-and-wife duo Arborea, continue to tour their butts off. Their 2013 album Fortress of the Sun was a favorite outside the ESP-Disk’ office as well. It was named one of AllMusic.com’s ‘Favorite Folk Albums of 2013′ and ‘Favorite Singer/Songwriter Albums of 2013′, Acoustic Guitar Magazine‘s ‘Best Acoustic Albums of 2013′, textura’s ‘Top Ten Albums of 2013′, and placed in the Best Of Echoes 2013 Listener Poll. Mojo Magazine said of the album, “Buck and Shanti Curran’s fifth LP of spellbinding psych folk feels both stronger and frailer than 2011′s Red Planet, the golden production highlighting the fever-storms and dark sadness in these deep, powerful songs.”
Here is Arborea’s March tour schedule:
1 Schlow Library in State College, PA (w/Daniel Bachman & Alexander Turnquist)
2 Rigby Mansion in Philadelphia, PA (w/Gardner Sheppard duo & Jesse Sparhawk)
3 Hippo Records in Greensboro, NC
4 Nightlight in Chapel Hill, NC (w/Jesse Wooten and Skylar Gudasz)
5 Mothlight in Asheville, NC (w/Halli and Ryan of River Whyless)
7 The Well Coffeehouse in Nashville, TN (w/The Rushings)
9 Standpipe Cafe in Lufkin, TX
10 Mezamiz Coffee House in Abilene, TX (w/Hopeful Heroines)
13 Charm School Vintage at SXSW in Austin, TX (w/New Bums, Wrekmeister Harmonies, Jerry DeCicca, Jess Williamson)
14 St David’s Bethell Hall Official SXSW Showcase in Austin, TX
18 Fifth Dimension in Baltimore, MD (w/Marian McLaughlin & Early Universe)
19 The Dunes in Washington D.C. (w/Marian McLaughlin & Janel and Anthony)
21 Joe’s Pub in New York City (with Cassandra Jenkins & Anders Griffen)
22 AcousticMusic.Org Presents in Guilford, CT
28 One Longfellow Square in Portland, ME (w/Christopher Paul Stelling)
January 10th, 2014
The famous writer and activist Amiri Baraka died today from complications following a recent surgery. He was 79 years old and had been suffering from diabetes and related ailments.
When he was still known as LeRoi Jones, he appeared on one of the first ESP-Disk’ releases, reading his controversial poem “Black Dada Nihilismus” with the New York Art Quartet (ESP1004). (For more background on this poem and Baraka’s work with NYAQ, read this page).
Nor did Baraka mellow over the years; controversy erupted around him again when, while he was the Poet Laureate of New Jersey, he read his poem “Somebody Blew Up America” in the wake of 9/11. New Jersey’s response was to eliminate the office and title of Poet Laureate. Nobody was ever able to silence Mr. Baraka, though. He was an American hero, and he will be sorely missed.
For more about Mr. Baraka, you can read The Los Angeles Times‘ obituary.
December 19th, 2013
NPR likes us, they really like us!
In their Annual Jazz Critics Poll, ESP-Disk’ did very well in the Reissues category, and also managed to show up in the top half of the 491 new releases that received votes. Considering we only had four new releases this year — our wonderful Oscar Brown Jr. & Maggie Brown concert album, our Fire Music compilation drawn from previous releases (the sort of thing that rarely gets critics’ votes), Arborea (not jazz), and Tiger Hatchery (newcomers, and also released too late in the year to make much impact in polls), we are thrilled by this line:
199. (tie) Oscar Brown Jr. & Maggie Brown, We’re Live 9 points (2 voters)
Voting for the album were Jason Weiss (Improjazz) and Scott Yanow (The Jazz Singers, Jazz on Record 1917-76).
Of course, given our emphasis this year on getting items from our classic catalog back in print, we did even better in Reissues:
15. Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano 11 (6)
16. Paul Bley, Closer 10 (6)
38. (tie) Byron Allen Trio, s/t 3 (2)
Albert Ayler, Live on the Riviera 3 (2)
54. Giuseppi Logan, More 2 (2)
73. (tie) Patty Waters, College Tour 1 (1)
Thanks to these critics for supporting us!
Larry Birnbaum (Stereophile): Giuseppi Logan, More
Troy Collins (All About Jazz, Point of Departure): Byron Allen Trio, s/t
Mark Corroto (All About Jazz): Paul Bley, Closer ; Albert Ayler, Live on the Riviera
Laurence Donohue-Greene (The New York City Jazz Record): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano
James Hale (DownBeat): Paul Bley, Closer
Peter Hum (The Ottawa Citizen, jazzblog.ca): Paul Bley, Closer
Art Lange (Point of Departure, Fanfare): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano
Howard Mandel (Jazz Journalists Association, Jazz Beyond Jazz): Paul Bley, Closer
Ken Micallef (DownBeat, eMusic.com): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano; Giuseppi Logan, More
Chris Monsen (Klassekampen, Perfect Sounds): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano
Michael G. Nastos (Cadence, Hot House): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano
Mike Shanley (JazzTimes, shanleyonmusic): Byron Allen Trio, s/t
W. Royal Stokes (wroyalstokes.com, JJA News): Paul Bley, Closer
Ken Waxman (The New York City Jazz Record, Jazz Word): Paul Bley, Closer
Bob Weinberg (Jazziz, Jazz & Blues Florida): Albert Ayler, Live on the Riviera
Jason Weiss (Improjazz): Ran Blake, Plays Solo Piano
Josef Woodard (DownBeat, JazzTimes, Jazziz, Los Angeles Times): Patty Waters, College Tour
November 5th, 2013
Here’s the schedule for our big show on Sunday, November 17 at JACK:
3:00 PM doors open
3:30 PM Tiger Hatchery, ESP’s newest signing
4:15 PM Alan Sondheim reunion with Rafi Zabor
5:00 PM Giuseppi Logan Quartet
5:30 PM Michael D. Anderson (ex-Sun Ra Arkestra)
6:10 PM Elliott Levin (New Ghost)
7:00 PM Kali. Z. Fasteau (ex-Sea Ensemble)
7:45 PM Bruce Eisenbeil with Nels Cline
8:30 PM jam session
(I know the flyer says this goes until 9 PM, but really it’s 10 PM!)
Admission is just $10! ESP’s percentage of the door will ALL be donated to the Sun Ra Music Archives.
You can buy tickets here:
These tickets will be “Will Call” at the venue that day, so there is no shipping charge.
JACK is located at 505-1/2 Waverly Ave, Brooklyn NY 11238 between Fulton St. and Atlantic Ave. in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. It is easily accessible by taking the C train to the Clinton-Washington stop, one block away from JACK, or the G train to Clinton-Washington, a few blocks away. There is also free street parking available on Waverly Ave.
November 4th, 2013
Brooklyn drummer Kid Millions is well known as the drummer of indie-rock faves Oneida (so famous that The Onion has referenced them, and if that’s not fame I don’t know what is) and Man Forever. Here are his thoughts on one of his ESP faves.
“After reading Always in Trouble – An Oral History of ESP-Disk, you might be excused your trepidation when approaching the amazing recorded legacy of ESP. It seems like there’s a good faith effort now to address payment of royalties and other institutional shortcomings of an organization that despite its administrative problems, always attempted to document the furry fringes of popular music.
“I’ve got a lot of love for the ESP aesthetic, on all fronts — music most of all, but certainly for the album art. One of the many highlights of inspired marriages of jacket art and recording is Sonny Simmons’s incredible debut Staying on the Watch, introduced to me very recently by the gentlemen on Just Music, East Village Radio’s flagship experimental music program. I was stunned by the articulate, aggressive performances by all the musicians on the record especially by the “McCoy Tyner-unhinged” style of pianist John Hicks and the propulsive, devastating pointillist swing of drummer Marvin Pattillo…the captured performances have a hand in post-bop tradition but veer wildly from these moorings with a remarkable and exciting fluency. The tunes are great, the playing is always surprising, and the improvisations are satisfying to the extreme. Sometimes jazz and improvisation records give you the sense that “you had to be there.” Staying on the Watch feels so immediate and timeless that you are there and compelled to return again and again. And to address the amazing starkness of the cover photo of Simmons standing on a rock in Central Park, towering over the buildings in the background, his horn poised as if to bring more life to the fields of the park: You get the sense of a creative force so in tune, representing and transcending a certain environment — it actually enhances the extraordinary contents of the recording. It’s an incredible document and a testament to the artistic vision of ESP.”
November 2nd, 2013
Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano, Blake’s solo debut, has barely been heard since its appearance in ESP-Disk’s first batch of LP releases in 1965. The reissue programs in Europe on ZYX and Calibre did not include it; there was only one very poorly distributed bootleg Italian CD issue in the mid-’90s. Fans and aficionados, including members of the jazz press, have clamored for it to be included in our 50th Anniversary Remaster program, citing its musical and historical importance, so here it is! The slight distortion on a few high notes is a small price to pay to hear this jazz master at the beginning of his illustrious career.
Born in 1935, Blake developed a style of jazz playing unlike anyone else’s by incorporating classical elements (the Impressionists, of course, but Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Messiaen have also been cited), gospel music (which he experienced first-hand in a Pentecostal church while growing up in Connecticut), Thelonious Monk’s highly personal style (back when Monk was still considered a good composer but an overly eccentric pianist), and an abiding love of film noir that influenced the mood of his playing as much as his purely musical influences. Recording opportunities were sparse at first; by age 40 he had released only three albums: his 1962 debut with vocalist Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around (RCA), Plays Solo Piano, and another solo album, The Blue Potato and Other Outrages (Milestone, 1969, long out of print). Since then, fortunately, he has received many more opportunities to get his music heard and has established himself as one of the reigning American masters of jazz.
We have already had one spectacularly enthusiastic review come in, by Ken Micallef on eMusic.com
A singular talent’s beautiful mind at work
Jazz is often considered the art form of the individual voice — years of study leading to singular improvisations — but it’s usually not the case. You can usually quantify personal style as a number of components adding up to a whole: “Piano player X recalls the darker hues of Bill Evans yet intimates Tristano’s complex maneuvers, all fortuitously merging…” You’ve read it all before. But there’s nothing quite comparable to the work of pianist Ran Blake. He’s a singular talent. His 1965 ESP-Disk solo debut still wows not only as a jazz recording, but as a statement of artistic conviction, beauty, and talent. Blake’s influences only appear as fragments (Monk) or stylistic devices (stride); it’s his beautiful mind at work on Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano.
Whether it’s an innovative “Green Dolphin Street,” the ominous, explosive original “Birmingham, U.S.A.” or the happy dance of “Sister Tee,” Solo Piano is more an expression of that mind than the assembled songs Blake performs. This latest ESP-Disk reissue follows a series of remastered releases from the ’60s New York label, whose catalog — including Giuseppe Logan’s More, Don Cherry and Albert Ayler’s New York Eye & Ear Control, and Paul Bley’s Barrage— is the stuff of free-jazz legend. That Blake recorded his intimate solo set amid ESP-Disk’s turbulent fare is all the more remarkable.
Using a song’s melody as a jumping off point, Blake recomposes (a word often used when describing his approach) the material through wild dynamic shifts, jarring chords, abrupt rests and disruptive rhythms that in lesser hands would simply sound childish or worse, egomaniacal. But Solo Piano reveals fresh details and novel wrinkles with repeated listens. His renditions of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and Billie Holiday’s trademark “Good Morning Heartache” acquire new personalities and give up new ghosts, creating fresh emotional responses to veritable jazz standards. When Blake wanders into 1925 smash hit “Sleepy Time Gal,” he establishes a brief stride cadence, but his stride is less a lark than a nightmare. The song quickly goes akimbo, like Monk falling down an airshaft, before turning twilight and lonely, as if Sinatra is about to sing “One for My Baby…” Ran Blake Plays Solo Piano is like that, a hundred thoughts turning into one sublime sound.