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Remembering Bernard Stollman: 10 Essential ESP-Disk Albums

Bernard Stollman died this week at 85. Unknown to most but a legend to many, he was one of the most important non-musicians in the history of the 1960s jazz avant-garde. Stollman, a lawyer, founded the ESP-Disk label in 1964, initially so he could release Ni Kantu En Esperanto, an album of songs and poetry in Esperanto (a language invented in the 1880s and intended to transcend national boundaries and thus foster international peace and understanding). The imprint’s second release, though, turned out to be one of the landmark jazz albums of all time — saxophonist Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. Scorching and raw, this trio session can still take the top of your skull off.

Over the next few years, ESP-Disk released well over 100 titles, ranging from free jazz to avant-garde rock to vintage live recordings by Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday. Eventually, the money ran out, and ESP-Disk stopped releasing records in the mid ’70s. Stollman went on to work in the New York State Attorney General’s office for decades. But portions of the catalog were licensed for reissue in the 1990s and early 2000s, and in 2005, Stollman re-activated the label, signing new acts, re-taking possession of the catalog, and perhaps most importantly, striving to pay royalties to artists who claimed they’d been ripped off for decades. (The actual sales figures for free jazz are generally dismal, but there was definitely some shady accounting going on back in the day, as has pretty much always been the case in the music business.) The last release he personally signed off on, a duo CD by saxophonist Mat Walerian and pianist Matthew Shipp, will be out soon.

In the gallery above is a list of 10 essential ESP-Disk releases. They’re all from the jazz side of the catalog, because let’s be honest, nobody’s that interested in the Fugs or Cromagnon in 2015. But Albert Ayler’s music remains as amazing as ever.

Dive in here.