There’s a motto on the cover of every ESP-Disk’ album: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk’.” Coming from most record companies, that might sound dubious. But listen to any given ESP-Disk’ release, and you’d be hard pressed to argue. What profit-oriented businessperson would ever choose music this uncommercial, adventurous, and rebellious?
Bernard Stollman was not a businessperson when he started ESP-Disk’ in New York in 1963. He was barely scraping by as a lawyer, and had to borrow money from his mother to continue his label after its first release (a record about how to sing in Esperanto, the language that inspired the label name). Why take this chance? Because of Albert Ayler.
One night in 1963, blown away by an Ayler performance in Harlem, Stollman immediately offered to put out the saxophonist’s music. Soon, he found himself saying the same thing to dozens of free jazz musicians in New York. “I just plowed blindly ahead, without giving a great amount of thought to how it could be sustained,” he explained in 2012. “It took over from my law practice very quickly, because it was closer to my heart.”
Quickly is right: In September 1965, ESP-Disk’ released its second album, Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, alongside 11 other full-lengths from jazz artists including Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, and Ornette Coleman. Over the next 18 months Stollman put out 45 records—many by players who were appearing as bandleaders for the first time—and helped launch careers that continued for decades. Disputes over royalties complicated that legacy, but being on ESP-Disk’ added immeasurably to the stature of these musicians among free jazz aficionados.
The music these artists made for ESP-Disk’ still sounds bracingly original 50 years later. It’s mostly outward-bound free jazz, but the label also supported boldly experimental rock and folk. Many similar imprints emerged not long after ESP-Disk’ began—BYG-Actuel in France, ECM in Germany, and Emanem in England—that were just as innovative. But ESP-Disk’ was there first, and remains the prime model for independent avant-garde sounds.
Stollman folded his label in 1975, after which its catalog re-emerged periodically via official reissues and unauthorized bootlegs. He re-launched ESP-Disk’ in 2005, and though he passed away in 2015 at age 85, it continues today with his original vision intact. “I approached music with the tacit question ‘Is this art?’,” he once said. “Entertainment is something else.”
To welcome ESP-Disk’ to Bandcamp, here’s a guide to some of the best releases from the label’s early years.