Friday, September 05, 2008

A talk with Bernard Stollman of ESP

Alfred Lion, Neshui Ertegun, Orrin Keepnews - all started record labels that released records that shaped musical history. (Blue Note, Atlantic and Riverside were their labels, in case you didn't know.) Bernard Stollman deserves to be on that list too. Without him, the world might've never heard the Fugs, Patty Waters, the Godz, Pearls Before Swine or Burton Greene. Albert Ayler might've recorded a few early sessions in Europe, but it was his ESP album Spiritual Unity that really presented his approach to the saxophone.

At the time of their original releases, these albums might not have sold huge amounts, but like the old comment about the Velvet Underground (or was it the Stooges), everybody who bought them started a band.

After reading my post about Giuseppi Logan last week, Bernard Stollman got in touch with me. What follows in the first installment of our conversation, about Mr. Logan and the label itself. As I transcribe the talk, I'll post more of his insight into the origins of the label.

How did you find out about Giuseppi Logan?

Bernard : He was brought to me by Milford Graves, the percussionist. I hadn’t heard him before, but Milford recommended that I record him. I trusted Milford’s judgment, tastes and recommendations. So that’s what I did. It happened throughout the history of the label: musicians have been brought to me and I frequently, perhaps almost invariably, listened to their recommendations. This label has been shaped in large measure by the ideas and thoughts and tastes, if you will, by its artists.

Did Milford take you to a show to see Giuseppi or did he just say you should record him?

I hadn’t heard him play. I didn’t really no what he sounded like. Milford felt really strong about him. As I’ve done many times with the label, I would take the risk, if you will, and provided the opportunity if one of my colleagues felt very strongly about it.
The session took place at Richard Alderson’s studio. I remember standing at one end of the room. At the other end of the room was, single file, where the artists were going to perform. They were walking into the recording studio. They didn’t come towards me. They were at a distance. And at one point Giuseppi passed and from that distance, about 20 feet away ,he said clearly, “If you rob me, I’ll kill you.” And that was the beginning. Kind of an inauspicious beginning to a relationship. It got better from there.

So he didn’t know you were the man from ESP?

Oh yes, he did.

So he meant, “If you rip me off, I’ll kill you”?

Yes. Exactly. Coming up very defensively. He knew nothing about me really that I could imagine. It was just this stance, posture. We weren’t personally acquainted. Milford was mortified. He was very embarrassed.
So we went into record. I had no idea who they were going to be, except for Milford, or what they were going to do. There were no exchanges. They went in and did their music. I sat in the control room with Richard Alderson listened to the sessions go down.
I’ve stated before, we stood there and at some point we got very spellbound. Engaged - that’s the word for it. What they did was so engaging. Everybody thought it was totally improvised, like a group of, oh I don’t know, people in a souk in Morocco or something. Playing just to express themselves. And we were actually spellbound. [Alderson] was a producer too.
So were standing there listening to the session and it’s going forward, and all of a sudden, “thwuck,” the tape had run out on the deck in the middle of the performance. I thought, Oh my God, this gorgeous thing is going on and it’s blown because we weren’t paying attention.
So Richard got on the intercom and said, “Giuseppi, we’ve run out of tape. What do you want to do?” Logan says, “Run it back, so I can hear to right before it cut off and we’ll take up where we left off.”
That’s exactly what he did. He ran the tape back and played two bars so he could tell where they were, and they kept right on playing. He hit the record switch and there was no loss whatsoever. If you listen to the record, for the life of you, you couldn’t tell that it was suspended and redone.

Do you remember which track?

I’m not really sure. But it was certainly really….[laughs] all of his songs were really engaging in that sense. I couldn’t tell which one it was.
What amazed me, what absolutely amazed me was the realization that what I had heard was not essentially chaotic pandemonium, or just a freewheeling exercise. Everyone one of those musicians knew exactly what he was doing, from a fraction of a second to a minute. And there were doing it without the slightest hesitation, winding out the songs, letting the music unwind. That was very sobering to me. It dawned on me at that point that I hadn’t a clue what was going on. It was not chaotic. This is a dialogue. It was grounded, they knew exactly what they wanted to say. And that was just……. you have to experience something like that to appreciate just how extraordinary a phenomenon it is. I owe that to Giuseppi. That was quite a lesson to me. We were fooled.

At the Town Hall concert, he played at that and we put that out as a second album. Many years later, at least 10 years ago, we were listening to a tape of the {Albert Ayler] Bells concert from that same Town Hall show, and lo and behold there was seven minutes of music at the begin of that tape. And it was the remainder of Giuseppi’s performance that somehow had gotten separated. So we’re going to reissue that record with the additional seven minutes.

When will that come out?

We’ll get it out probably in February. There are so many things waiting to be done.

During that session or any point before that, did you think, I’m really onto something. Art is being created here.

The whole experience of doing ESP was a serious shock. A very, very pleasant shock. I never ceased to be astonished by what happened.
Paul Bley’s first album with Dewey Johnson, which we’re going to reissue now, is an extraordinarily beautiful album. And it’s not at all like his Closer album. Very very free album. I want to put it out again.
[Laughs] I mean every single one, they all surprised me. They all took my quite unaware. There’s no way I could’ve prepared me for what they did. I didn’t know what to expect and I wasn’t disappointed.
The New York art Quartet - I went to the studio around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Roswell Rudd and John Tchicai were there and they had this little kid with them. I thought what’s he doing here? Of course, I didn’t ask. And they introduced me and it was Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka. He wasn’t a little boy, he was just a rather short individual, but a very serious one. That too. I had no idea what to expect and I wasn’t disappointed.
So this has been the course of my career in music.


nevermore said...

I think i heard that "only 50 people were at the velvet's first gig, but every one oof them started a band." Also substitute "bought the Velvet's first album, but..."
regardless, interesting interview!

shanleymusic said...

Glad you like it. There's more to come if I ever get the time to transcribe. It's been a rough week.