Always In Trouble
An Oral History of ESP-Disk', The Most Outrageous Record Label in America by Jason Weiss, Wesleyan Univ. Press, 292 pages, $24.95 (paper), $11.99 eBook
While the music scene over the past half-century has been dominated by major record labels, the most interesting, groundbreaking work is often done by small, independent operations, from Sun Studios to Folkways to Stiff. One of the most idiosyncratic, and important, of these small labels was ESP-Disk', started in 1964 by a lapsed lawyer named Bernard Stollman with the initial goal of capturing the "free jazz" movement then shaking up New York City. In its earliest, four-year incarnation, ESP-Disk' released an astonishing 125 albums of free jazz, spoken word, rock, folk and other unclassifiable material, some of which — like Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity and Pearls Before Swine's One Nation Underground — are now considered musical treasures.
Free jazz was the musical equivalent of Jackson Pollock's contemporaneous "action painting." Traditional notions of form, content and melody are jettisoned to make room on the boat for "pure expression." At its best, free jazz was nearly overwhelmingly intense and, at some point, ceased to be "jazz" and became more like proto-psychedelia. At its worst, it was irredeemable noise. ESP-Disk' opened its doors to all comers and was lucky enough to find the best free-jazzers on the welcome mat — Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Sonny Simmons, Frank Wright, Ornette Coleman, Giuseppi Logan, Burton Greene, Steve Lacy.
From the vortex of that musical moment we now have a remarkable literary document — Always In Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk', The Most Outrageous Record Label in America by Jason Weiss (Wesleyan University Press). Even those who've never heard, or heard of, free jazz will be charmed by this odd and affecting collection of voices of the firsthand witnesses. While many of the musicians made little money from their ESP work — as the title suggests, the label was pursued by all kinds of "trouble" — some launched careers and all helped redefine modern music.
The first half of the book is dominated by the voice of Stollman himself, who is still alive and active, having in 2006 resurrected his label to make available decent reissues of the back catalog and pay long overdue royalties to many of the survivors. Yet he is also releasing new material by avant-garde ensembles like Gigantomachia and Yuganaut.
Stollman released whatever struck his fancy or, as Weiss notes, "He functioned more by instinct, circumstance, opportunity and by following his own eclectic cue." After his initial free jazz phase, Stollman moved into folk and rock with "little discernible pattern or design." Again, luck smiled on him, bringing Pearls Before Swine, the Fugs, Holy Modal Rounders, Godz and Cromagnon to his door. Stretching the boundaries even further, he released material no one else would touch, like The Coach with the Six Insides by Jean Erdman (Mrs. Joseph Campbell), a theatrical production based on Finnegans Wake, and Sings by Charles Manson, simply because, as Stollman tells Weiss, he "thought the songs had a peculiar kind of individuality…I saw him, in a sense, as a political victim as well as a psychopath."
Despite all the trouble that dogged the label, there's a reason ESP-Disk' recordings still hold listeners spellbound 40 years later. It's as simple as the motto on the back of every album: "The artists alone decide." While that may seem to be a recipe for chaos, it worked for Stollman's shoestring operation, which usually functioned with just one studio engineer, Richard Alderson, who got off one of the book's better lines: "Sun Ra is Duke Ellington on acid."
Author of a previous book about Steve Lacy, Weiss is most interested in ESP's jazz legacy, but those who love experimental rock are lucky to have such an intrepid detective on the case. Not only did Weiss track down Stollman and the surviving musicians, he found the album cover artists and photographers who took part, and Always in Trouble is far richer for being augmented visually with their work.