Graded on a Curve:
New Releases from
ESP-Disk

June 17 is new release day for ESP-Disk, the New York City-based label that has, with a few stops and starts, been specializing in free jazz, fringe folk, and twisted psychedelia since 1963. To get specific, the recordings are World Construct by the Matthew Shipp Trio (CD), Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage by WeFreeStrings (CD), and Bond Wire Cur by Raymond Byron (LP). All three are covered below, along with some words on Just Justice by Jones Jones (CD), which the label has staggered for release on June 24.

By 1963, a few noteworthy independent labels had already made their mark, but ESP-Disk, started by the late NYC lawyer Bernard Stollman (and currently managed by Steve Holtje), initially to issue music with connections to the international language Esperanto (no, ESP doesn’t stand for Extrasensory Perception), is the first underground label. ESP-Disk’s growth coincided with the emerging counterculture, but the output was far too uncompromising to ever be assimilated into the mainstream.

The ESP-Disk roster is almost entirely comprised of heavyweights, even on the folky side of the spectrum. And so it remains, as the label is admirably invested in releasing new music that extends the u-ground tradition set in motion by Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, Frank Wright, Charles Tyler, Frank Lowe, Patty Waters, The Holy Modal Rounders, Pearls Before Swine, The Fugs, Godz, and Erica Pomerance.

It signifies ESP-Disk’s continued relevance that piano titan Matthew Shipp is amongst the contemporary artists recording for the label. He’s also one of the most prolific. And the man’s output is so voluminous that his ESP stuff is only a portion of his recent activity. By my count (and I’m very likely missing one or two), World Construct is the fourth release of 2022 with Shipp’s name on it, and there is definitely more to come.

World Construct utilizes the long established piano trio template (that’s keys, bass, and drums) to deliver just short of an hour of power. Akin to the groups that excelled in the “classic” piano trio style, there’s exquisite horizontal movement intertwining with unusual depth from instruments too often relegated to mere rhythmic support.

But what’s distinct about World Construct is how Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker bring the avant-thunder (Bisio’s sound is HUGE, Baker playing is hard and fleet) while combining it with sensitivity and melodicism that harkens back to the 1970s lofts (plus a hint of The Lighthouse), with strong ties to the ’90s avant-jazz renaissance (where Shipp played a crucial role). As the set unwinds, there are flashes of Bud, Monk, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, Dave Burrell, and Cecil, but that’s just it; they are flashes. Shipp is utterly his own man, and he is at the top of creative game.

Led by violist-composer Melanie Dyer with violinists Charles Burnham and Gwen Laster, cellist Alexander Waterman, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Michael Wimberly, WeFreeStrings’ Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage is a more compositional affair than the outfit’s name might suggest (a handle that also brings a killer Roland Kirk album to mind).

The disc’s four pieces have audible affiliations with avant-jazz (and additionally, tangible connections to the jazz “tradition”). However, freeform in style they are not. But free in spirit? Hell, yes! And that’s really the point, as the compositions evince a refusal to be boxed in. Dyer has studied with some major names in contempo classical viola, but the music here hardly ever struck my ear as a hybrid of classical and jazz, which is impressive given the lack of horns.

More than once I thought of ESP-Disk alums The Revolutionary Ensemble, obviously due to the prevalence of strings but additionally the shared socio-political focus, as “The Baraka Suite” opens the set and pieces are dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer and Fred Hampton. Ornette Coleman’s composing for strings, which was first heard on the ESP-Disk Town Hall, 1962 (to blossom later on the underrated Skies of America) also came to mind, an association that should be taken as a considerable compliment.

Of the participants, I’m most familiar with Wimberly, who played with Charles Gayle and also released his own CD Afrofuturism last year, and Filiano, who has collaborated with a certifiable ass-ton of people including Vinny Golia, Richard Grossman and Anthony Braxton. Dyer has also worked with numerous worthy names on the current scene, but everybody sounds terrific on Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage.

Along with cutting one album as Raymond Byron and the White Freighter and working with a handful of big names including St. Vincent and Sufjan Stevens, Raymond Byron has recorded extensively as Castanets (with the vast majority of his releases under the moniker issued by Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty). Byron’s been described as part of the long since crested New Weird America wave and by extension tagged as freak folk, which makes him a good fit for ESP-Disk, as the label’s folkies hardly ever played it straight.

Indeed, Bond Wire Cur has been described as part of ESP-Disk’s current attempt to revive “weird rock.” Now, there’s not many moments on this LP that can be accurately assessed as rocking, but neither does it sound like a field recording of one guy and his guitar. There are numerous contributors throughout, but thankfully the guests don’t dominate the proceedings.

A pleasant aura of the folky is cultivated and productively spiked with unstrained flashes of the bent and infusions of eccentricity. Just as positively, Byron isn’t stiving to sound like some (re)discovered bohemian oddball. He’s clearly a byproduct of the indie era, and as there is nothing forced or calculated about this circumstance either, it all unwinds just fine.

To swing it back to jazz, Jones Jones is something of an avant-garde all-star trio, featuring tenor and sopranino saxophonist Larry Ochs, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Vladimir Tarasov. Ochs has been part of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet since its inception on 1977, Dresser has played with such giants as Tim Berne, Marilyn Crispell, Satoko Fujii, Ivo Perelman, and Anthony Braxton, and Tarasov was part of the Ganelin Trio, a renowned free jazz group that formed in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s.

Of the three jazz releases included here, Just Justice comes to closest to the core post-Fire Music explosiveness that ESP-Disk kept issuing well into the early 1970s. To put a fine point on it, this is a disc loaded with heated, hard blowing from Ochs that will most assuredly please fans of Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, Noah Howard, Giuseppi Logan, and early Gato Barbieri.

But it’s incorrect to assess Just Justice as a merely channeling an earlier era, as Ochs is up to much more than just throwing flames, Dresser is bowing up a storm  and Tarasov approaches his kit, and in particular his cymbals, in a distinctive manner. The inspired scrape and clatter helps this collection of interactions to stand far above standard-issue skronk, and that’s a magnificent way to conclude this rundown of ESP-Disk’s persistent worthiness.

Matthew Shipp Trio, World Construct
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WeFreeStrings, Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage
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Raymond Byron, Bond Wire Cur
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Jones Jones, Just Justice
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