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The History of ESP-Disk’

It released free-jazz touchstones in the ’60s, faded away amid claims of raw dealing in the ’70s, then reappeared in the 21st century, retaining its old artistic ideals but “with better royalty payments.”

Steve Holtje (photo courtesy of John Ricard)
Steve Holtje (photo courtesy of John Ricard)

BEYOND UNIVERSALS

Bernard Stollman was a lawyer in the early 1960s who became a crusader for Esperanto, a 19th-century attempt at a universal language. In 1963 Stollman produced an album called Ni Kantu en Esperanto (Let’s Sing in Esperanto), on which three performers translated a set of traditional songs into the language. The imprint releasing the album was dubbed ESP-Disk’, an abbreviation of Esperanto Disko.

Things might have stopped there, but a year later, Stollman heard Albert Ayler at a New York café. Combining a rich tone and heavy vibrato with a disregard for set tempos, the tenor saxophonist had an immediate impact on the lawyer. “It was washing over me, through me,” Stollman told me in a 2009 interview. “It was a totally heartfelt cry and it was continuous. But he poured his heart and soul into it, and there it was. It was life or death for him.”

Bernard Stollman
Bernard Stollman in the 1960s (courtesy of Steve Holtje)

From there, Stollman saw his future laid out. “I thought of the music publishers in Vienna, in Munich and Hamburg, Germany and Austria, who captured the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Wagner,” he said. “Without those publishers to capture the music and put it in print, I think that they would’ve been lost too. I saw a parallel with what I was doing. Someone had to do it.”

ESP soon became the label to document some of the most radical practitioners of the “new thing” in jazz, which was starting to gather momentum. Along with Ayler, the label released albums by saxophonists Marion Brown, Pharoah Sanders (in his recording debut), and Sonny Simmons. Stollman didn’t limit himself to jazz either. Lower East Side poets-turned-musicians the Fugs, primitive rockers the Godz, and psychedelic folkies Pearls Before Swine made some of the better-known releases in the catalog.

While many ESP albums found a cult following, its jazz releases arguably had a long-term impact. Patty Waters released two bold albums that combined the understatement of Nina Simone with a catharsis that would later be heard in the work of artists like Yoko Ono. Her epic 13-minute version of the traditional “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (on 1966’s Patty Waters Sings) was memorable for the vocalist’s intense screams.

Fay Victor, whose SoundNoiseFUNK band recorded for ESP in 2017, finds Waters’ work inspiring both as a singer and a vocal teacher. “I loved the things she did with song material like ‘Wild Is the Wind’ and ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,’” Victor says. Vocalists often either “choose to stay in a free realm, a free space, or stay within more structured, composed material. I like the fact that Patty can straddle both.”

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 shanleyonmusic.blogspot.com.