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ESP is back…

Don Cherry…gotcher Brooklyn right here. My colleague Joe Bourne received a box full of ESP disks the other day, including gems from Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and much, much more. Evidently he’s been living right, and I’ve been… well, erm, coming up short in the jazz karma department or something. But it’s good news, good news.

I first heard about ESP in the early, heady days of my conversion to jazz; a friend who hosted a local show, “Jazz Is My Religion” (calling Ted Joans, who apparently spent some time here in Bloomington, and whose title recital always opened the program) announced the first wave of CD reissues that were then hitting the market back in the early 1990s. ESP was a small 1960s label that proudly proclaimed, “The artists alone decide what you will hear” on their record sleeves… whether or not the artists actually got compensated is another story, one as tangled and unfathomable to me as the various forms of distribution the label’s received in the past 15 years. There’s no doubt, however, that ESP is an important part of the story of 1960s avant-garde jazz. (Since a VH1: Behind the Music special on the likes of Ayler, Cherry, Sanders etc. is about as likely as, oh, say, Stanley Crouch writing a glowing review of the On the Corner box-set, I highly recommend checking out Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life and John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle for deeper background on the scene from which the ESP recordings sprang.)

I picked up the Don Cherry Live at Cafe Montmartre 1966 disc a few weeks back–not an original ESP release, although reports indicate that at least some of this material has been out before. If you’re into Cherry’s mid-1960s Blue Note recordings–he was between Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers when these recordings were made–then this performance will be of particular interest. The presence of Karl Berger on vibes brings a new texture to the excerpts we hear from Complete Communion, lending moody levity to the search-and-destroy lines of Cherry and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. (One of these days I really want to do a show about the use of vibes in the avant-garde.) This band, including Berger, had actually recorded together the year before (the album Togetherness) with Jean Francois Jenny-Clark on bass and Aldo Romano on drums. (Clark is replaced on the ’66 Montmartre date by Bo Stief.) Don Cherry invoked its international nature when he noted that “Aldo Romano, an Italian, also spoke French. Gato Barbieri spoke no English. Berger spoke French, German and English. I’d tell Karl something, he’d tell Aldo, and he’d tell Gato–because Italian was the closest thing to Spanish.” There’s so much going on in Cherry’s mid-1960s extended works, and the pieces come through with a raw vitality on this new ESP cd…. that spirit of ’66 was something else, boy.

Warning: don’t get too excited about the DVD that comes with the Cherry disk. It’s a 12-hour compendium of various ESP tracks, cool enough, I suppose, but the visual for each track is simply a still of the artist or group and a thumbnail biography. I was fool enough to hope it was 12 hours of live footage and/or conceptual videos… no dice. The label says they have unearthed some old videos, though, and so far they’ve posted three of them–a Sun Ra two-parter and a Giuseppi Logan–over on their YouTube page.

It also looks like ESP will be distributing the mighty Ayler Revenant box from now on. For a taste, check out our Holy Ghost program from the Night Lights archives.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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