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To contemporary ears, ESP is a legendary label marking some of the lesser known free jazz experiments of the ‘60s, with a catalogue including titles by Frank Lowe, Sunny Murray, Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley, Milford Graves and Sun Ra. But during its course, from 1964 to 1975 (with many of the titles reissued by a variety of labels in the ensuing years), founder Bernard Stollman created what was really a document of the times, with liner notes printed in Esperanto (a language which, at the time, was being pushed as a global tongue), and titles not just by proponents of the New Thing but political satirists and oddball rockers like The Godz, The Fugs and Pearls Before Swine. And also in the mix, a spooky chanteuse, a singer of flowerlike dirges named Patty Waters.
Waters was recommended to Stollman by Albert Ayler (who'd also recorded on ESP) after her short stints singing with Bill Evans, Charles Mingus, Ben Webster, Jaki Byard and others in New York. She recorded two albums for the label ( Sings with ESP pianist Burton Greene in the trio backing her and College Tour with Greene, Ran Blake, Dave Burrell and Giuseppi Logan among the sidemen) and an uncredited appearance on a Marzette Watts record before slipping from the scene in 1968. A largely unnoticed 1996 release, Love Songs (Jazz Focus Records) did little to dispel her disappeared status. Looking back on those days, Waters still sounds like the lost child she evoked on those early records. "I was just enjoying life," she said in on interview from her Hawaiian home. "I loved the years in New York. I was really enjoying being in New York."
But a roaming spirit led her to Europe, where she gave birth to a son in 1969. She made her way back to California and picked up three Associate's degrees ("It's kind of trippy. I just kept taking classes and it added up.") and focused the rest of her time on motherhood.
Now she's just as focused on being a grandmother, having followed her son and his family to the island of Kaua'i three years ago. But a circuitous chain of events is bringing her back to New York this month.
Several months ago, she heard that the British music magazine The Wire had included her 13- minutes-of-bare-yearning track "Black is the Color of my True Love's Hair" in a CD that was sent to subscribers. She contacted the magazine to see if she could buy a copy ("They sent me a complimentary copy," she humbly noted), and a writer at the magazine contacted her about playing the Tolbooth Festival in Scotland in May. She contacted Greene about joining her and he invited her to play the Vision Festival with him before they head to the UK. Waters said she hopes to record more, and has discussed a session with another long lost ESP alum, Henry Grimes (who will also be at this year's Vision Festival) with Stollman. But her first thoughts are about her two upcoming gigs.
"We'll see how it goes," she said. "I think it'll be like riding a bicycle with Burton. We'll just have in mind world peace when we play."