Label Spotlight: ESP-DISK

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Back in the heady 1960s, the most far out label for avant-garde jazz was definitely ESP-Disk.  It was founded in 1964 and run by lawyers Bernard and Saul Stollman, and featured artists like Albert Ayler, Burton Greene, Sun Ra, The Fugs (a blend of Zappa and Beefheart, New York style), Ran Blake, Paul Bley, and others.   One of ESP’s slogans, printed on the back of the records, was “You Never Heard Such Sounds in Your Life”.  Ran Blake, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders both had their first records out on ESP-Disk.  So did Timothy Leary; his lp was anthemically titled “Turn On, Tune in, Drop Out”.  Ornette Coleman’s 1962 Town Hall NYC concert came out on ESP-Disk too.   Then there was Bob James first lp, “Implosions”, an avant solo piano excursion utterly different from the smooth-jazz vibes of his Columbia albums that so many mixologists have sampled.  Sun Ra’s lp “The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra” (2 vols) is widely considered to be his best work.  And the cover art has him pictured along with other great cosmologists such as Pythagoras, Copernicus Tycho Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler.  It’s one of the great lp covers.

ESP-Disk might have been named after Esperanto, the idealistic, international language that was recognized by UNESCO in 1954.  On the back of each ESP-Disk were the words:  “Mendu tiun diskon ce via loka diskvendejo au rekte de ESP.  Eksterlanda prezo:  $5.98.  Pagu per internacia postmandato”.  Which roughly means “To order ESP records, visit your local record store or order it directly from ESP for $5.98”.  I found this translation via a google search.

One of the rarest ESP-Disk lp’s was Bells by Albert Ayler.  It was a clear vinyl disc with Purple silk screening on the vinyl label.  Several of my friends in high school had copies.  When I asked what happened to these lp’s, they told me they’d sold their copies, thrown them away, lost them in a divorce, etc. It fetches a high price these days, a collector’s treasure.