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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.

However, so far, there has been no replacement that I am aware of for the kind of thrust that we can give through our radio and press support. We still provide a platform. Through the label's identity the group can have a certain level of support from the critical community. Our ideas, our approach, our thinking is shared. At least the critic/reviewer community responds well to our initiatives. As far as my life and resources permit we'll continue to do that indefinitely into the future.

AAJ: I want to circle back to the Charlie Parker set because you mentioned it. It's obviously a very painstaking effort towards completeness. The liner notes are way more than liner notes. This is an annotated history of the music, including extensive interviews. It's an amazing package. A couple of questions: First, how did this set come together?

BS: Michael Anderson, whom you know, archivist, historian. He's very tenacious when he picks up on a subject. He goes all the way. He doesn't pull his punches. If he is going to tell the story, he has to tell it as richly, as fully, and in as much detail as he can. I believe he has great discrimination and taste. I think he must have a photographic memory or something! This man is phenomenal. I really credit Mike Anderson. He assembled twenty CDs. This is just the first segment, 1940-1947. We're just getting underway. I don't think most people can handle a twenty disc set, the life of Charlie Parker.

AAJ: What is the process for putting this together? How is ESP going about acquiring the material?

BS: There is no simple answer. Archivists, collectors, that's the community. For some reason we've attracted their interest around the world. We have a level of support that is unprecedented because they know—how shall I put this—we're not bottom line oriented. We care about the music. So we've had something I never could have imagined in terms of the level of support from people who are collectors and enormously knowledgeable about Mr. Parker and history. It's a very rare thing for that to happen. I'm very glad that it is because it provides from an educational standpoint, a cultural standpoint, an achievement and I credit Mike with that level of dedication, commitment, and concern, and sense of responsibility for telling the story exhaustively and as richly as it can be done.

AAJ: Looking at some of the other ESP reissues, that have a more transparently or obviously avant-garde feel, from a certain slice of time, going to Charlie Parker for ESP seems an interesting choice. How does it fit into the catalog? How are you looking at this?

BS: In term of our direction? There are others pending. But they are not ready to be publicized. I don't want to invite, others, perhaps, to move in ahead of us (laughs).

AAJ: Fair enough. What I am getting at is, you have this established catalog of the free jazz, protest music, avant-garde from the sixties and seventies. At the same time, you've got the Parker set and some yet to be identified projects in the same line. Do you see this as branching into something new, or part of a continuum?

BS: I would say that era in particular, the 40s and 50s, we're giving increasing attention to. There will be other artists, other trends of that period that will be brought to the fore. We are assembling compilations to again dramatically illustrate the phenomenal things that were going on that have been largely overlooked and that this generation of music enthusiasts may not be that aware of. We're doing some archeological work, as I see it. Musical archeology (chuckles).

I don't see why we have to restrict ourselves. As long as we have the energy, the resources, the distribution, and the interest from the critics and the public, why shouldn't we mine those resources? Why not? It's not interfering with anything else we are doing. You'll hear more from us about expanding into other areas as well, other than jazz. We've made some commitments. We'll be announcing them soon.

AAJ: Before we move on to some of the newer releases, I want to talk about the reissues. The ESP label, at least part of it, represents a kind of soundtrack to the sixties free-jazz, era of cultural experimentation. Looking at that time period and today, do you see any parallels?

BS: There are phenomenal parallels. In fact there are the parallels that you find throughout the generations, which is to say that each decade as it takes on an identity, bebop, free-jazz, whatever, each decade or era blooms and gets public recognition. Than a new group comes up. The young Turks emerge to challenge it and provide fresh ideas. They break the mold. They shatter the mold. But at the same time they borrow heavily from the preceding group. It seems to be cyclical. It seems to be generational and it seems to be inevitable.

You find it in painting. You find it in other arts as well. A new crowd comes up, they do have fresh ideas, but they borrow heavily from their predecessors. And they come in and they become the new mainstream. That is happening now. Although [some] have decried the death of the music, 'there is nothing new happening. People are just trying to maintain old traditions.'

Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as I can perceive. There is a current generation that represents the world as it is today and their music is just as inspiring, influential, innovative, and interesting as any other era I have lived through. Imagination, inspiration have not left the world. The new musicians, the new composers, in their own way, have as much to contribute, are just as original as they were 30, 40, 50 years ago. They have a lot to tell us. A lot to say. Of course, you'll see glimmers from earlier. (laughs) You'll recognize that they are playing music. Which means they are playing notes! Sounds! But they have their own perspective that comes from their own experiences. If we are open to it, it can be extremely rewarding and inspiring.

AAJ: I've found the new ESP roster inspiring in that way and also for the sheer diversity. Everything from Jugendstil to Barnacled.

BS: There you are. And it's not the whole picture. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't innumerable other strains, and trends, and streams of art and inspiration and ideas in music. We happen to have fallen on certain ones and brought them to the fore. I never thought ESP could act in a role of documenting a time or an era. It seems to me to enormous an undertaking. Even the artists you pick, you are just capturing a few moments of their creative life. They go on to produce immense amounts of other music and ideas. What can a label really do and what should it attempt to do? Realistically speaking all you can do is just sample the currents. Sample the stream and bring it to the public's attention and get the artist more recognition.

AAJ: How do you choose new artists from amongst this huge diversity?

BS: I now have a cottiers of people around me that are themselves enormously gifted musicians. It just so happens that my current staff are themselves practitioners, members of this movement, if you will, this community. So it is circles inside of circles inside of circles. I mean, how did I ever get the label off in the sixties with my profoundly limited exposure to and understanding of what was going in modern music? How could I do that? How was it possible? It was simple. Musicians, unlike painters, do not tend to be isolated. They are involved in dialogues. They are playing with other musicians. They sharpen their knives, I guess, on each other. (laughs). They are playing, dialogues, exchanges. They are continuously honing their craft and improving their music. In that sense, they find each other. They find friends of friends of friends. It's like a pool and there are ripples in that pool. A single rock falls and these pools interact, these waves of energy interact. It's a huge community, a global community that is making music—not playing music—making music. They are exploring, experimenting, finding truth. And they are speaking beauty. That is my mantra. Truth and beauty. That's what I take it to be my reference to what they are trying to accomplish.

To what degree are they succeeding? That is a very subjective matter. You can't really say. It is how you respond to it. It is a feeling. That is all it is. I'm using myself as a channeler. Someone who perhaps can hear something. My hearing is my work. I listen. I'm a listener. There are no mistakes. If you are involved in that community, they are always challenging each other. Out of all this emerges a kind of consensus and I listen to that consensus and it is brought to me and if I agree the music gets put out. Today, I don't go out to clubs or sit with stacks of demos. Impossible! So I draw from the work of my colleagues, these young musicians of whom I speak. They are guiding me. That's the whole thing. Alchemy occurs.

AAJ: One of the common threads here is that your approach goes back to the motto of the label. "The artist alone decides." It's very, very personal.

BS: You bet it is. It is very personal and private. Strange. We all share a common aesthetic and common ethic. It is a matter of spirit. The word I never hear around me is the word entertainment. These are not entertainers. They are thinkers. They are philosophers, and they are working toward some kind of higher—it is a language that is not explainable. I couldn't explain it to you no matter how long I tried.

AAJ: Looking at the label's reissues and the new material, even though they are totally distinct, each one individually, even though they represent different time periods, even though each individual artist is pursing quite different trends. There does seem to be a common aesthetic or language in them. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on what it is that makes something feel avant-garde even if it's a Paul Bley reissue from thirty years ago or a cross breed of electronica, jazz, and everything else like Barnacled?

BS: I think it is almost impossible to verbalize or explain. In spoken language terms. It is totally intuitive. The label, its entire history essentially is something that has been tilted to my own personal perception. I have been the only A&R person for the label the entire history. I made all the choices only if I could answer the rhetorical question, do you have something to say? That's it. I can't even try to analyze what that means. It is all very subjective, very intuitive, and can't be analyzed very well.

AAJ: Let's go back to some of the technical challenges of running a label. You referred to some of them at the beginning. There is obviously a huge economic crisis. The recording industry has been hit hard. The huge impact of electronic distribution. You've been involved in the music business for a long time. How do you see the recording industry evolving?

BS: Personally I feel that as downloads become improved, now they are not great, the quality is not great, it is acceptable and this generation considers it the norm. The MP3 is not the be all and end all of sound. We know what sound can be. Kids of today do not fully appreciate analog sound and what its capabilities are. Yet we know there is a resurgence of interest in the LP. Now why is that? Maybe its aesthetic, the shape of the album, the size, the whole phenomena. I think more that they are able to coax from it frequencies and qualities of sound that you cannot get digitally. It's not the same thing. Where is it all going? I think more of the same. A vast expansion of digital means of listening, playing, distributing music. But at the same time, a resurgence, a return of appreciation to analog, to the LP.

AAJ: Do you think that is a transition as the digital medium struggles to capture the sound?

BS: It's got to improve, the quality of sound. It exists. We just haven't availed ourselves of it. You can transmit digitally superior sound. They just aren't doing it, aren't bothering. Kids don't ask for it at this point. There is such thing as Hi-Fidelity. We're interested in 5.1 which is quite amazing. If you listen to a recording that is done well in surround sound, which my colleague Bernard Fox is a wizard at, then it has phenomenal impact. It is an amazing experience.

AAJ: Let me ask another question about managing a label, particularly considering your highly personal approach. There is often expressed a basic tension or contradiction between artistic endeavor and commodification.

BS: There is absolutely no question about it. The notion that you can or should concentrate on music that has been reproduced electronically instead of live performance—they are not the same thing, for starters. Live performances are alive and well. People from the dawn of time have wanted to gather and share communally live sound. It is only during this last century that it became technically possible to capture that sound and reproduce it.

I think reliance on commodities is a personal thing. It is up to each individual whether they want those records to be their life in terms of music experience, or whether to go out and support the artist by attending performances. I think we just represent a small part of the picture. The dynamic of live performances experienced by the listener should be the ultimate goal if people can find time in their lives to do it. The records can be useful, just for my purposes, their just a way of inspiring people to say, 'That is interesting. And I've got something to say too." I am most pleased that over the past 43 years, since we started, that an entire two generations or more of creative musicians have been inspired by, stimulated, spurred by what they've heard on our records to do their own thing.

I don't see any larger purpose than that. I think music should be experienced as a live phenomenon. We've frozen a second of their life, but the artist continues performing, creating, changing. It is just a reflection of what is possible. No more than that. Again, not an entertainment medium. I don't think people should listen to these records. I think they should hear them, but as far as repeat listening? I don't know how often they should repeat listening. It is about being stimulated, turned on, and inspired. It is inspirational.


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