ESP 1001: Ni Kantu En Esperanto

ESP 1001: Ni Kantu En Esperanto

Many of W. Eugene Smith’s reel to reel recordings have blank labels.  Recently, I cataloged one of these reels that begins  with a recording featuring Alice McLeod (Alice Coltrane) in the middle of a conversation. She briefly mentions a time when a dog joined her at the piano and played some notes with its paw. This casual conversation continues with several other voices, one  mentioning dolphins and their “fantastic” communication, a topic that also shows up following one of the Thelonious Monk big band rehearsals that took place in the loft in 1964 and can be found on one of Smith’s reels. You can read about this Monk conversation  in the prelude to Robin DG Kelley’s excellent Thelonious Monk:The Life and Times of an American Original.

This Alice McLeod conversation soon ends when a second microphone is turned on and Julius Balbin recites his Esperanto translation of Babij Jar or “Babi Yar,” the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. “Babi Yar” is an inspiration and a subject of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor (Op. 113, subtitled Baby Yar). Balbin survived his experience as a concentration camp prisoner of Auschwitz so his reading of this poem about the 1941 Nazi directed massacre at Kiev held some visceral power, even without understanding his Esperanto rendition of this poem.  It becomes clear while listening to this tape that Balbin reads this poem as part of a developmental rehearsal for the first ESP disk Ni Kanto En Esperanto. I also heard the voice of ESP label founder Bernard Stollman or perhaps Duncan Charters reading an explanation of the Esperanto language and demonstrating the Esperanto language. . At various junctures in this recording, Smith chimes in to direct the recording he’s engineering. They also refer to “Maceo”, who is likely Maceo Gilchrist who appears on ESP 1005: The Byron Allen Trio.  Kanto in Esperanto came out in 1963 so we know this recording was made before that record release and after Alice Coltrane moved into the loft at 821 Sixth Avenue.

“There is less noise around here on Sundays, or very late at night” says Smith, as they plan for a follow up recording session. Naturally, the activity of the wholesale flower district, where Smith’s 821 Sixth Avenue loft was situated, made for a high level of ambient noise except for late nights and Sundays.

We’re excited to find a second tape featuring Alice Coltrane. She lived in the loft for a month or so after returning from Paris and this may be from that era. Or she might have returned to visit and play a session or two after having her residence there. Hearing a recording that led to the inception of the grand ESP label is thrilling.  Since this reel isn’t labeled, then there might be others of equal importance in the remaining as of yet uncatalogued reels.  Another tape I recently cataloged, revealed the beginning of a jam session featuring Jimmy Stevenson and Warren Bernhardt from January of 1964. So these finds make us optimistic that the remaining collection of these recordings may yet yield the Ornette Coleman practice tape or the Diane Arbus photo meeting that oral histories have confirmed as taking place at 821. Or maybe some surprises like this one with Alice, Smith, and the ESP crew.

You can read more about Jules Balbin in this interesting profile by Alexander Kharkovsky ( which provided some background for this post). And a great interview of ESP Disk founder Bernard Stollman by Clifford Allen from (2oo5).

-Dan Partridge

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