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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.”

Fay Victor's SoundNoiseFUNK
Fay Victor’s SoundNoiseFUNK (L to R): Sam Newsome, Victor, Reggie Nicholson, and Joe Morris (photo: Fay Victor)

THE POST-BERNARD ERA

Stollman died on April 19, 2015, following a prolonged battle with colon cancer, which eventually spread to his spine. He was 85. Holtje is now ESP’s sole employee, but the label is technically owned by the Stollman estate. “The executor is Bernard’s brother Steven, and he doesn’t tell me what to do and what not to do,” Holtje says. “He wants to keep ESP-Disk’ independent because he thinks that’s an important part of his brother’s legacy. He’s apparently happy with how I run it.”

With a post-millennium discography that includes both free improvisers like Ivo Perelman and psych-folk bands like Arborea, ESP still can’t be pigeonholed by genre. And much as it did in the ’60s, it still gets people up in arms, including musicians. “Somebody who will remain nameless—an avant-garde jazz musician—once criticized me online for issuing a particular artist who’s an improviser,” Holtje reports. “He said the guy was not ‘in the tradition.’ It’s a weird thing for an avant-garde musician to say, because ‘in the tradition’ was a club they used to beat avant-garde guys with. But for him it’s a specific line of avant-garde jazz that is his tradition. If you understood anything about ESP, you would never use the word ‘tradition.’”

In fact, when the label’s catalog is viewed in its entirety, it places everything from bebop to avant-garde jazz on the same continuum. The thrashy jazz of Tiger Hatchery, a current ESP act, might send bebop fans running, but those listeners would love Bird in Time 1940-1947, a historically significant four-disc set of Charlie Parker’s early recordings and airchecks. ESP has also released similar aircheck sets of Billie Holiday and Bud Powell.

Many of these elements coalesce in a 2019 project by Allen Lowe, a saxophonist, composer, and musical historian whose previous releases have included a 36-CD set (plus book) chronicling the history of blues music. Co-released by ESP and Lowe’s Constant Sorrow imprint, his An Avant Garde of Our Own: Disconnected Works 1980-2018 contains eight discs of original material recorded over nearly four decades. Lowe’s list of collaborators ranges from trumpeter Doc Cheatham to pianist Matthew Shipp, guitarist Marc Ribot, and three members of the World Saxophone Quartet. The music displays a strong sense of history, but some of the soloists revel in pushing the limits of convention, like Charles Mingus at his most radical.

Lowe calls himself a bebopper, with an affinity for Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy (“I love chord changes,” he says). He discovered ESP as a teenager in late-’60s New York City, coming across albums in cut-out bins. Town Hall 1962, Coleman’s lone ESP release (in 1965), might have been a gateway, but Lowe dug further, enjoying the intensity of musicians like Logan and Ayler. “They’re opening all these new doors,” he says of those albums. “I may not always like what they do when they get through those doors—to take that metaphor too far—but the fact that they open them is what’s so revolutionary and important.”

Now that he records for the label, Lowe calls the experience “mind-boggling. Steve is a pleasure. I think he represents really proudly what ESP stands for, which is to communicate with artists and not just be dollars and cents. Obviously he has to deal with the bottom line, but he’s very reliable and I trust him entirely.”

When Holtje first met Fay Victor, she was already an established singer with albums on Greene Street Music, the label she runs with her husband Jochem van Dijk. But after seeing her, guitarist Joe Morris, and drummer Reggie Nicholson captivate a club full of young college students—not your typical free-improv fans—he thought their group SoundNoiseFUNK should be documented. Victor wanted to bring soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome to the session that became 2018’s Wet Robots. “I said, ‘Sure, it’s ESP, the artists alone decide, go and do what you want,’” Holtje recalls. “Because again, that’s Bernard’s vision. But I made a tiny exception for that gig. I reminded them of that club: ‘Think about those kids dancing while you’re playing.’ I figure that’s a broad enough mission statement that it doesn’t interfere with their creativity.” The quartet took his idea to heart, coming up with free music that also has a groove to it.

Before New York City was put under quarantine in March, Victor and Holtje got together to mix tracks for SoundNoiseFUNK’s followup album, recorded live at New Haven’s Firehouse 12. The vocalist appreciates Holtje’s hands-off approach to production. “He doesn’t say anything unless he feels he really has to say something for the benefit of the music,” she says. ”It’s great to work with someone who values your work, values what you can do, and doesn’t feel the need to interfere.”

In what seems like a stroke of irony, ESP’s offices now have a new home on Miles Davis Way (a.k.a. West 77th Street in Manhattan). Speaking by Zoom in late May, Holtje says that the pandemic hasn’t slowed down his activity. He had recently released Morph, a two-disc set by drummer Whit Dickey with longtime associate Matthew Shipp and trumpeter Nate Wooley, and The Coalescence, a limited-edition vinyl pressing from Owl Xounds Exploding Galaxy, a Brooklyn free-improv group helmed by drummer Adam Kriney and bassist Gene Janas. He also offers a list of no less than 15 other releases that have assigned catalog numbers. Approximately half are slated to come out in 2020.

The deaths in April of bassist Henry Grimes (whose 1966 debut as a leader, The Call, was on ESP) and Giuseppi Logan meant that he had to pull inventory from a storage space to keep up with interest in their work. When those releases were listed as “name your price” downloads on Bandcamp, listeners followed suit. “If you make albums free, about half the people who download them will pay something anyway,” Holtje says. “Which is nice.”

It’s clear that Bernard Stollman’s concept is living on—“except with better royalty payments,” Holtje adds. When asked to give a more detailed explanation of his late boss’ vision, Holtje pauses for a moment to find the right words. Finally he says, “Not caring about genres. Focusing on moving forward with people who are not already super-documented. And not wanting to do what everybody else is already doing.”

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

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.