Launched in 1965 by New York attorney and Esperanto aficionado Bernard Stollman, ESP-Disk' found a permanent niche in "out" music with its second release, Albert Ayler's free-jazz opus Spiritual Unity. Featuring two versions of Ayler's signature composition, "Ghosts," the album has been reissued nearly a dozen times since; even for those who've committed its songs to memory, the sheer soulful force of Ayler's trio (with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray) continues to surprise and astound. Spiritual Unity documents a 1964 session from the trio, ESP's first non-Esperanto-language recording, and the first of 45 such sessions Stollman would record over the next 18 months, using inherited family money… A
Stollman was drawn to iconoclasts, and jazz has produced few figures as against-the-grain brilliant as the astral-minded space traveler himself, Herman Poole Blount, a.k.a. Sun Ra. Some of the most challenging recordings Sonny made surfaced via ESP-Disk'—although newcomers should note that the recently reissued Heliocentric Worlds Volumes 1 & 2 (1965), Nothing Is… (1970), and Concert For The Comet Kohoutek (1973) cover some of the more obtuse and difficult periods in the bandleader's oeuvre. The former two discs, rooted in a period of intense experimentation that was almost cubist in nature, are the more unwieldy (and, arguably, essential) of the group; the latter, a live set, finds Ra and his Intergalactic Arkestra alight with cosmically spiritual vocal tunes, extended Moog jams, and rollicking, coffin-tight epics that hurtled classic big-band themes into the space age… B
Throughout the Vietnam era, Stollman also gave some of the underground's weirdest and most left-leaning acts a creative/protest outlet, unwittingly prefiguring contemporary avant-folkies like Devendra Banhart in the process. Inspired by another of ESP's leftie-folk acts, The Fugs, Florida-based singer-songwriter Tom Rapp and his group Pearls Before Swine sent Stollman their demos and earned a recording deal, releasing the bizarre, crypto-hippie-folk landmarks One Nation Underground (1967) and Balaklava (1968) on ESP before jumping ship for Reprise. Though it's a mere 20 tracks long, the recent The Complete ESP-Disk' Recordings compiles both Pearls classics onto one album, and though it's spiritually light years removed from the ESP compilation Charles Manson Sings (yes, that Charles Manson), it stands well alongside that record as an analogue for the critically adored "freak folk" Banhart and his ilk are making today… B
Saxophonist Frank Wright never earned quite name recognition of Sun Ra or Albert Ayler (or John Coltrane, for that matter), but his newly reissued 1974 ESP-Disk' classic Unity showcases the sheer depth of expression Wright was capable of unleashing as a bandleader. Commanding his instrument in much the same way a Pentecostal preacher might handle a rattlesnake, Wright doesn't just summon the twin spirits of Trane and Ayler, he traverses the sax's upper and lower registers to blow circles around them both. At his rawest, Wright sounds as concerned with proving the sheer force of his will as he is with finding a tonal center, and the result is a two-track, hourlong spiritual journey that's as exhausting as it is empowering. A-.