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Free Five: A Choice Quintet of ESP-Disk’ Releases

Here are five albums from the ESP label that should be heard

Albums by Albert Ayler (Spiritual Unity, Spirits Rejoice) and Patty Waters (Sings, College Tour) are oft-referenced gatekeepers of the ESP-Disk’ aesthetic—you can read more about them in our feature story on the label. But ESP released more than 100 remarkable albums during its first run, with dozens more coming since its 21st-century resurrection. Here are just a few that should be heard, all of which are available either through ESP’s website or its Bandcamp page.

Sonny Simmons: Staying on the Watch (1966)

Sonny Simmons: <i>Staying on the Watch</i> (1966)

Alto saxophonist Simmons’ first ESP album might have shocked the hard-bop crowd upon its release, but in retrospect it moves in the same territory that Jackie McLean was probing at that time, straddling freedom and structure. The quintet includes Barbara Donald, Simmons’ wife at the time, on trumpet (one of the few female horn players in free jazz) and John Hicks on piano, the latter in his recording debut.

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The History of ESP-Disk’

Mike Shanley

Mike Shanley has been a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh and gladly welcomes any visitors to the city, most likely with a cup of coffee in one hand. Over the years, he has written for several alternative weekly papers and played bass guitar in several indie rock bands. He currently writes for the bi-weekly paper Pittsburgh Current and maintains a blog at