In 1966, attorney Bernard Stollman founded the ESP-Disk label in New York City. Less than three years later, with orders dried up from established record labels bootlegging their better-selling records, the label was driven out of business.
This is a familiar story followed in some variation by thousands of start-up record labels over many years, but ESP-Disk has a special place in the history of avant garde music. During the first eighteen months of its existence, a staggering 45 records were recorded and released, virtually all of them recordings of some of the most controversial music in one of the most tumultuous times of American history.
The artists signed up to the label were ones not passed over by the "Bigs" because they lacked talent, but rather, they lacked commercial viability (although some records did beat the odds and charted). By willingly signing these progressively minded musicians, ESP eagerly took gambles that no other American record company dared to take.
This micro-label was the launching pad for many prestigious careers; the debut albums of Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, Sonny Simmons, Giuseppi Logan, Milford Graves and Henry Grimes had the ESP-Disk logos on them. Some more recognizable names such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Roswell Rudd, Sunny Murray and even Bob James have also recorded for ESP during those active, first few years. Most significantly, Albert Ayler recorded his most essential, groundbreaking records under ESP.
ESP welcomed underground acts from other genres, too. The Fugs, Pearls Before Swine and that quintessential whack-folk group, The Holy Modal Rounders, all found a home at Stollman's enterprise.
After the then-legal bootlegging gutted the small company's source of income, Stollman turned to licensing the catalog to European outfits for several decades. But now, ESP-Disk has returned. In 2005, a revived ESP-Disk began to reissue its own catalog. Today, the label is all the way back with brand new releases, too, including Totem>'s exciting Solar Forge CD.
It's the maiden releases by Grimes, Logan and Graves that are of special interest here because just last month, ESP-Disk issued digitally remastered versions of these obscure but notable free jazz records on CD. Here's a rundown of each of these almost-forgotten documents of mid-sixties avant garde:
Giuseppi Logan Quartet Giuseppi Logan Quartet
Logan's approach to whack jazz mirrored Ayler's; most of his songs actually have discernible, almost child-like melodies that often appear to be launching pads for free-form improvision. Logan's saxophone tone and technique is almost child-like as well, to the point that at the time he had been accused of not being able to play the instrument. Sometimes it does sound like a kid picking up the instrument for the first time and tooling around with it. Other times, though, he gives away the secret he seems to be trying to keep, that he really does have technique (albeit, not a whole lot of it).