Spiritual Unity

At around 1pm on July 10, 1964—almost exactly 45 years ago—percussionist Sunny Murray, bassist Gary Peacock, and saxophonist Albert Ayler met at the Variety Arts Recording Studio just off of Times Square to record what would become the first jazz release for Benard Stollman's ESP-Disk. The studio was tiny and cramped and its walls were covered with Latin album covers and its doors were open so that the musicians could breathe. Can you imagine how hot it must have been?

The label began as Esperanto Disk; it was Bernard Stollman's vision to create a label devoted to music based in Esperanto, that universal language meant to foster peace and international understanding. The very first release (ESP 1001) was Ni Kantu en Esperanto, an album of acoustic folk songs, with lyrics sung in what sort of sounds like a mix of Portuguese and Polish. But Stollman was destined to promote and distribute the music of free-jazz groundbreakers. Though he knew very little about jazz, as an artist's rights lawyer, Stollman found himself working more and more with African-American musicians involved with improvisational music. In a 2005 interview with Clifford Allen of All About Jazz, Stollman explained:

The word got out among the most desperate of the musicians' community that I would help them with their problems if I could. A young woman came to me who was a choreographer, a very lovely woman, and she said "I understand you're helping musicians." I said yes, I am sympathetic to their struggles, and she said "why aren't you helping Ornette and Cecil?" I remember I said "Ornette and Cecil who?" She was aghast, "they're the princes of modern music and you don't know them? That's just terrible. Look, I've talked to them about you, and they both want you to manage them."

Stollman learned quickly, fell in love with the music, and grew into a champion for artist's rights. Printed on every ESP-Disk was the simple declaration: "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk." The result was some of the most beautiful and adventurous music of the time, with albums from Ornette Coleman, Lowell Davidson, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Marion Brown, Paul Bley, Gato Barbieri, Milford Graves, and of course Albert Ayler.

By 1968, however, ESP-Disk was nearly defeated. After suffering through mass bootlegging and ill-fated licensing agreements, Stollman and his label trudged on until 1974, when the money ran out. Fortunately, ESP's master tapes were stored in safe deposit boxes, where they waited quietly for the next 17 years. Meanwhile, Stollman had become New York's Assistant Attorney General. After his retirement in 1991, ESP's catalog was licensed to ZYX, a German dance label. The relationship had a successful start, but, according to Stollman, it later fell apart with ZYX failing to pay royalties. In 2005, Stollman resumed full control of the ESP catalog and began reissuing old titles in addition to releasing new work from exciting bands like Brooklyn's Talibam and Providence's Barnacled.

Spiritual Unity is the most recent of ESP's vinyl reissues. It begins with "Ghosts," and "Ghosts" begins with a clearing of the throat which blooms into a soulful, jubilant, and unforgettable melody, a melody like a nursery rhyme, like a morning alarm, a carefree fluttering met by searching vibrations along Gary Peacock's upright bass and scurrying cymbal work shot from Sunny Murray's lightning fingertips. Beats are replaced by the finest and most relentless raindrops on tin cans, raindrops like pins, like tacks falling on a sheet of glass, while Ayler and Peacock tie each other in gold and silver ribbons.

The hand-numbered, limited-edition reissue is pressed in the United States, on 180gm virgin vinyl. It features the original album art and liner notes, and includes a free download of 320kbps MP3s. It is pulsing with the fire and passion of a New York City summer.

Nate's picture

Nice to see ESP-Disk is doing vinyl again. Ayler's Spiritual Unity, Hopefully they'll do PBS's Balaklava and the Henry Grime's Trio re-issues soon.

michaelavorgna's picture

Excellent post dude. Let's hope the Lowell Davidson Trio is up for a vinyl re-do soon. There's gold in them-thar ESP vaults!

Bob 77's picture

"Lyrics sung in what sort of sounds like a mix of Portuguese and Polish."Stephen, the language they're singing in is Esperanto :-)

Stephen Mejias's picture

Stephen, the language they're singing in is EsperantoThank you, Bob. I was just trying to explain what Esperanto sounded like to me. It was a poorly constructed sentence.