Some Overlooked ESP-Disk Gems (RIP Bernard Stollman)
With the recent passing of Bernard Stollman at 85, I’m looking back over the catalog of ESP-Disk, his eclectic record label that became instrumental to the development of free jazz. I thought it would be fun to highlight a few gems that aren’t getting mentioned in other obituraries.
During my time as KZSU jazz director, we were receiving some ESP-Disk reissues that were top-notch stuff and some new releases that excelled. But ESP was maybe a little too open-minded in its selections, because we got some albums, old and new, that fell flat, tripping over the line between glorious freedom and undisciplined chaos. I credit Stollman for giving the artists total control over their albums, but there’s a lesson in there about temperance.
You can search the KZSU library here or here, two different and rather powerful search engines that put a lot of commercial efforts to shame. Because of the confusion over ESP’s ownership and exact name, KZSU’s ESP collection is listed mostly on this page, but a few titles (including Charles Manson’s) ended up on this page.
The names on those pages brought back mostly forgotten old fuzzy feelings. Note that I have not taken the time to revisit all of these releases, so some of the memories might be fuzzier than others.
James Zitro — Zitro (1967) ….. In 1967, Stollman gave Sonny Simmons’ drummer, James Zitro, a chance to show what he could do as a leader, and the results were explosive. The album is essentially two long tracks. “Happy Pretty” is a loungy jazz number played at 78 and overrun by stampeding horns and some ferocious soloing. It’s a thrilling yet incongruous straddling of the old and new jazz worlds. The band tries maybe a little too hard here, but it’s a mix worth hearing.
Sonny Simmons — Music from the Spheres (1966) ….. Along with Staying on the Watch, part of saxophonist Simmons’ great legacy and the start of a career that nearly derailed in San Francisco but has been back on track since. I wrote the Zitro entry assuming you knew Sonny Simmons, but if you don’t, start here.
New Ghost — Live Upstairs at Nick’s (2006) ….. ESP documented some exciting, newer talent in the 2000s. This live set from Philadelphia-based New Ghost mashes together dirty street funk, free-jazz skronk, jam-band friendliness, “world-music” horns, cartoony poetry, and a great sense of theater and stage presence. At one moment it’s a glorious mess, then it’s a tight, clean groove. Stage banter completes the atmosphere. Don’t sleep on this one.
Ellis Marsalis — Ruminations in New York (2005) ….. Scanning the ESP catalog, you frequently find yourself saying, “That guy? Really?” (The catalog is indeed 90+ percent male, but I also found myself saying “Billie Holiday? Really?”) Yes, a Marsalis is on the roster — Ellis, the patriarch, sitting down for some solo piano pieces that feel like casual journal-entries. Comforting sounds from an old cat who’s lived a good life. The music has the feel of jazz standards, but I remember considering that it all might have been improvised. It sounds like he had a lot of fun with this.
Ornette Coleman — Town Hall, 1962 (1965) ….. Yes, everybody knows about this one. I’m cheating. But this was my first ESP album and my first full dose of Ornette. (A cursory listen to Song X in the ’80s doesn’t count.) I love the music, the sound of the Izenzon/Moffett trio, the fact that there’s a string quartet dropped in the middle of all of it — and the backstory, with Ornette having to fund the show himself. In fact, I think I’m going to go listen to it again right now.