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Bernard Stollman: ESP Disk's Sound Revolution

Franz A. Matzner By

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In 1964, record producer Bernard Stollman founded ESP Disk with the motto "The Artists Alone Decide." Over the next ten years, Stollman's label secured legendary status, releasing a stream of avant-garde jazz, rock, punk and folk that consistently challenged the definition of what it meant to be avant-garde. It did so by bravely embodying its motto and embracing its instincts.

Now seen as a fixture at the center of the volatile musical period of the sixties and seventies, in 1974 the label shut down under threat of bankruptcy. Then, five years ago Stollman resurrected the label and stepped into the fray of a fragmenting record industry nothing like what existed forty years ago.

At the time, Stollman warned to expect surprises. Over the ensuing five years he has delivered on that promise, not only reissuing a host of classic ESP works, as well as gems culled from the vaults, but also reclaiming the mantel of a label at the forefront of experimentation that thrives on taking risks.

From expansive retrospectives like the recently released Charlie Parker Boxset, to the sprawling punk-electronica-jazz explosion Barnacled, to the frenetic free-metal race Solar Forge, one never knows what will appear next.

Once again, ESP has become synonymous with the unexpected. Speaking recently with Mr. Stollman about the re-evolution of ESP, it became clear why.



All About Jazz: Shortly after you revived the ESP label you spoke with All About Jazz and gave a detailed history of the ESP and a snapshot of what you hoped to accomplish by reestablishing it. The obvious question is, so far how's it going?

Bernard Stollman: We're gratified. We're very pleased because during the course of the last several months our business has soared even as the economy goes through changes—including the record business. Our business has not only held up, but expanded very considerably. We've added more distributors internationally and we're reaching out to more stores, individual stores that are specialists, and our distributors are very upbeat and optimistic about the months ahead, at least. Our new releases have been extraordinarily well received by critics—as I am sure you know. We're getting heavy airplay. I have no complaints whatsoever about our progress. I am quite frankly surprised how well we are doing considering the general economy.

AAJ: What do you think accounts for the label's surge right now?

BS: I can think of several reasons. One is that we have taken a very, very assertive position regarding recognition of new talent; new artists, new groups that are emerging. We have simultaneously been giving an awful lot of attention to the historical aspect of American music. Just this month we put out the Charlie Parker box set and had a very galvanic response from reviewers. And it appears to be selling well. So we are really pleased and gratified by that. We have several new projects planned that will reach back through the history of American music [via] boxsets which will provide a dimension that so far has been missing from the marketplace. Established labels, major labels have not approached this subject with the attention that we have or the concern for historical accuracy and completeness.

So our current and pending releases will continue to fuel the fire, as it were. We're going simultaneously backwards and forwards! (chuckles). We're delving into history and essentially taking the same reckless approach, audacious if you will, to underwriting, financing, releases by new talent.

AAJ: It's what fascinates me about the ESP label. There is often a debate in jazz about overemphasis on the history versus looking forward. The recent perennial question "What is our identity?" Even in individual players you encounter this struggle about what box they are putting themselves in. What's fascinating about ESP is its apparent ability to do both at the same time. Especially considering ESP's historical role representing the avant-garde.

BS: In principal we could rest on our laurels and just be involved in reissues of our original catalog and retrospective looks at the well established icons of American music. I don't think that's something I want to do. Our primary reason to exist is to provide an avenue for emerging groups, artists, to be heard, to be recognized. It's true. Any artist can press a record today. They can put it up on CDBaby. They can use Youtube. There is an enormous variety of ways that an artist or group can have their sounds exposed and hopefully through word of mouth they may build a following.

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