ESP-Disk’ might be the most revered and reviled of historically important jazz labels: revered for the free/avant classics it issued; reviled for its business practices. The leader of one mid-1960s ESP date still has his contract: $15 for him, $5 each for his two sidemen. That would be $25 more than some bands collected. (The revitalized label has made some efforts to pay royalties in recent years.) ESP started issuing jazz records in 1965, making its 2013 golden anniversary celebration seem premature, but the Esperanto language LP that got the operation moving dates from ’63.
Every free-jazz fan knows ESP perennials like Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity and New York Eye and Ear Control, Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai’s New York Art Quartet, The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, and maybe even the one where future pop-jazz icon Bob James‘s trio free improvises and presents radio excerpts as found art. (The car race is the highlight.)
But a subset of mostly overlooked early ESPs tell another chapter of the ’60s story: the internationalization of free jazz and the rise of “European improvised music.” Ayler’s free blowing on tunes including bits of “O Tannenbaum” and “La Marseilles” made European jazzers reconsider their own heritage. A new sense of European identity arose, partly out of cross-border meetings. Multi-reedist Willem Breuker was just emerging as the sarcastic bad boy of Dutch music when he teamed up with German vibist/flutist/bass clarinetist Gunter Hampel, in time for Hampel’s 1966′s Music from Europe.
Even then, Breuker favored cheeky detachment — is that a real free jazz solo, or is he making fun of one? — and he took instantly to Hampel’s bass clarinet, on which he made a raucous racket. (Breuker soon got one of his own, deployed often with his globetrotting little big band, the Willem Breuker Kollektief.) Hampel, for his part, was in the forefront of free vibists and flutists, forceful on either — not that he had so much competition. The quartet blast, they let in open space and make room for unaccompanied solos, and they sing one theme. All that suggests why many European improvisers bonded with the avant-Chicagoans of the AACM.
The Hampel quartet’s drummer was Pierre Courbois from the south of Holland, whose Free Music Quintet also made an ESP LP. Its trumpeter Boy Raaymakers (later a mainstay of the Kollektief) had proceeded directly from playing dixieland to free music — he and his buddies thought they’d invented it, until other musicians clued them in. The 1968 album wears well, its madcap energy again recalling the Chicagoans — the early Art Ensemble’s nose-twisting noise-making in particular. Courbois’s rolling-thunder tom toms and loose but firm pulsation suggest kinship with New York ESP colleagues Milford Graves and Sunny Murray.
A major influence in Amsterdam but little known outside Holland, Nedly Elstak (alongside saxophonist and future legit composer Theo Loevendie) was playing modal jazz and Turkish beats in the ’50s. In the ’60s Elstak helped launch Dutch improvised music, running a charity music school for fledgling improvisers which he kept going through the ’70s, publishing four scrappy volumes of Practical Jazz Theory. That crash course took the novice from this-oval-is-a-whole-note to how to write 12-tone tunes that imply nice chord changes.
On his 1968 ESP The Machine Elstak plays raspy trumpet and blocky piano, flanked by crisp and clear drummer Martin van Duynhoven and power bassist and future legit composer Maarten Altena. (He’s mighty with a bow on “Shades.”) The odd-meter groove-and-bugling title track is almost a template for the Chicago Underground Trio three decades later.
The trio might’ve gone farther, save for Elstak’s eternal weakness for singers. Most of the time they’re joined by Sophie van Lier, who gamely negotiates Nedly’s leaping lines and English lyrics. Her classical sound wasn’t to every taste; promoters offered Elstak gigs on the condition that she not appear, offers he spurned. But she’s nicely framed by that rowdy rhythm section, and the improv-inflected art songs look ahead to Altena’s own composing for voice and small ensembles. Say what you will about ’60s ESP: The music’s influence really rippled out.
That’s not even the whole international story. The sizzling Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who somehow puts Ayler and smooth jazz in the same continuum, was based in Paris when he recorded In Search of the Mystery in ’67. The catchier themes anticipate his folkloric recordings to come, there’s pioneering free cello from the neglected Calo Scott, and an early appearance by future Revolutionary Ensemble bassist Sirone.
On Steve Lacy’s 1966 The Forest and the Zoo, the expatriate soprano saxist plays free with Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava and South African refugees Johnny Dyani on bass and Louis Moholo — but ESP fans already know about that one. In 1967, the label induced the straight-ahead Czech jazz hero and multi-instrumentalist Karel Velebny to take his music “as far as out as you can go” for their LP SHQ, landing them in outward-bound Eric Dolphy territory. So much for the label’s much-vaunted slogan, “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk.”