FIRESIDE CHAT WITH JOHN CORBETT
I buy Down Beat for two things. One for an occasional review from Howard
Mandel and the other, to read John Corbett and Jim Macnie duke it out
over a record on the "Hot Box." But Corbett is more than a journalist,
he is part of the industry, sort of. Corbett is as far away from the industry
as any man can be these days and that humility and down-to-earth nature
is a credit to his character. His release I'm Sick About My Hat on the
Atavistic label (www.atavistic.com)
brought out a horde of heavies (Mats Gustaffson and Hamid Drake). And
if all that is not enough to occupy his days and nights, Corbett also
produces (along with Ken Vandermark) the improvised music evenings at
Chicago's Empty Bottle, which I constantly refer to as the hub of the
Windy City. Read his insights on Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity. I must
have listened to that record a dozen times and I never caught what Corbett
pointed out to me. That is just another example of his thoroughness and
love for the music, as always, I bring it to you, unedited and in his
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
CORBETT: I don't consider what I do, personally as a musician, to be jazz,
although I think it has connections to jazz. You go out on a limb when
you start to call yourself a jazz musician these days. It's hard to know
what that means. That probably means that you have gone to a conservatory
and studied how to play chord changes and stuff like that and I'm primarily
a self-taught musician. I see myself related to some of the free improvised
music of the 1960s and the whole movement of improvised music and I play
improvised music and so basically, in a way, my roots are in that. But
they are also in being a veracious listener. I was always a very adventurous
listener, but I was really intimidated by the jazz record section of the
record store. At some point, I had a friend in high school who encouraged
me to cross over into that section and start sampling it and not to be
afraid of it just because I didn't know any of the names.
What did you listen to?
CORBETT: Well, it was a real hodgepodge of different things because I
was coming from a punk background, I was listening to a lot of pretty
abrasive music at that time and also interested in experimentation through
certain art rock tendencies. I had a proclivity toward free jazz and more
experimental kinds of jazz. But at the same time, the first two jazz records
that I bought were Kind of Blue (Columbia), which is of course, often
a frequent first record for jazz newcomers and Tales of Captain Black
(DIW) by James Blood Ulmer. I bought them on the same day and then I went
back the next day, since I was thoroughly a record freak and I went back
and bought Ornette Coleman's Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Verve). From there on,
it was really just a constant dabbling and trying to find out about new
things. I got interested in the ECM label and through that I stumbled
onto Derek Bailey, a guitar player from London, who was one of the founding
figures of improvised music in Europe. At some levels, listening to him
and listening to a lot of other people was inspiration to start playing.
I mean, I was already playing in rock bands when I was in high school
and junior high. When I went to college, about half way through college,
I decided I was going to write my honors thesis on improvised music. I
felt at some point it was really stupid to be writing about it and not
having the experience, that I was losing out on something if I didn't
have the experience of getting in front of an audience and playing improvised
Were you in punk bands or hair bands?
CORBETT: I was definitely not in a hair band. I had enough trouble with
my own hair that I could never get it to anything that I wanted to (laughing).
I didn't participate in the fashion culture aspect of that that much.
I don't know whether that was a result of self-confidence or whether I
just felt self-conscious dressing up. I was never really interested in
dressing up in any way. I was interested in playing.
Let's touch on the Atavistic release (www.atavistic.com),
I'm Sick About My Hat.
CORBETT: The project is a three record project. This is the first in the
trilogy. The idea of the Heavy Friends is a little bit of a joke on the
fact that I have a lot of people that I work with, or that I am friends
with, I socialize with who are these fantastic musicians and sometimes
they will come into the studio with me and play a little bit. It was a
joke on the idea that these are the "heavy friends." They are heavy. They're
all incredible folks and I consider myself extremely lucky to be able
to work with them. The project came out of a desire to do some things
that were not straight improvised music. There is nothing on the record
that is straight up improvised performance. It's all material that was
made using a combination of studio compositions and then improvising in
a variety of different processes in the studio, that is performance processes,
where I am having somebody play and they are not hearing the context in
which they are going to end up or they are actually playing over something
they are actually going to appear over. What I wanted to do was challenge
myself to make a record that was very different from my usual working
method. That was the impetus behind it and what can I say? How incredibly
lucky I am to be able to have Hamid Drake play on my record. It is a project
that is going to spin out in a variety of directions.
You moonlight as a Down Beat critic. Critics have been known to have an
adversarial relationship with the artists they write about, but you have
a number of close friends who are musicians.
CORBETT: You can look at it from a lot of different perspectives. Somebody
might say that means I am doing my job wrong. The job of the critic is
to actually rock the boat a little bit and not to snuggle up with musicians
very much. I have a feeling that there are a number of musicians out there
who don't like me very much. And I don't choose to socialize with them
(laughing). I'm also careful not to write about the people that I do socialize
with a lot. It brings up a lot of potential conflict of interest questions.
I try to be really attentive to that. I'm also really respectful of what
they do. You would be surprised, Fred, there are those types of friendships
between critics and musicians all over the place. I don't think it is
How long have you been writing about improvised music?
CORBETT: Well, I started writing for fanzines when I was in college. I
started writing professionally in about 1989. It's been a little over
When did you start contributing to Down Beat?
CORBETT: 1990. It's my tenth year anniversary with them.
Did they give you a watch?
CORBETT: (Laughing) I getting my first column. I start a column next month.
It is called something like "Record Freak" because I am going to write
about out of print LPs.
How large is your record collection now?
CORBETT: Well, LPs, I probably have got about (asks his wife, Terri),
I think I have about 8,000 LPs. I have probably 6 or 7 thousand CDs. No
comments about my record collection in relation to other things. You can
tell certain things by the size of the record collection. Yeah, it's an
obsession. I started out with a few and it's built into something that
is good fun. I have good friends who are worse record hounds than I am.
Mats, for instance, is a complete lunatic. And my wife is saying that
I have more records than he does, which is true. But I spend much less
of my time looking for records these days than he does.
To provide some perspective on how overwhelmed you must be, how many records
do you get per month for review?
CORBETT: Two, three hundred or something like that. It's a lot. It's a
lot. A lot of it is crap.
You must be overloaded?
CORBETT: Yeah, part of the picture with overloadness was something that
I grappled with this last year. I was doing radio. I did radio for eighteen
years, two radio shows a week for the last four or five years. One at
WNUR, Northwestern's radio station and one at WHPK, the University of
Chicago's radio station, and my priority list had swollen to a point that
I just actually had to choose something to stop doing. So I stopped doing
radio completely this year for the first time in eighteen years. That
was in part because I started getting much more involved in producing
records, which is frankly something I have not done for that long. The
first record that I was involved in producing was 1995.
Let's talk about your involvement with producing a number of recordings.
CORBETT: I am doing a lot of different new projects. I am probably, at
any given time, just working on a couple. I am involved as a set of outside
ears that can bring another perspective to a project. In the end, the
best kind of a producer is a producer who helps them achieve their aspirations,
not somebody who comes along and imposes their will on the artists. That
is really an important point to me. If I have an idea, I'm not shy about
sharing it with somebody, but if they shoot it down, I'm not likely to
keep pressing them on it.
Being a Down Beat critic, give me your five favs?
CORBETT: Numero uno, Spiritual Unity by Albert Ayler Trio. Number two,
Conquistador by Cecil Taylor. Number three, Derek Bailey's Notes. Number
four, Peter Brotzmann's Nipples. Number five, Alex Schlippenbach Trio's
I'm curious why you would pick Ayler's Spiritual Unity number one.
CORBETT: It's my favorite record.
How many times have you spun it?
CORBETT: Hundreds. I've noticed something about it that I have never heard
anyone else mention, which is that in the middle of one of the tracks,
this is to brag that I think I know it better than anybody else (laughing).
In the middle of one of the tracks, there is a myth about that record.
It is an interesting myth. It claimed that the engineer ran screaming
from the room in fear. In fact, it seems that the engineer didn't even
know that they had already started performing. So there was some misunderstanding
between the engineer and the artists, who were already playing and in
the middle of one of the tracks, you can hear, there is about six seconds
of test tone. Nobody has ever heard it, in part because it blends in a
little bit with the music because Albert kind of wailing on it.
Right after we hang up I am pulling the recording and listening for it.
CORBETT: Yeah, check it out.
I noticed in your picks, European improvisers dominated most of your choices.
Do you feel that European improvisers are progressing more rapidly than
their American counterparts?
CORBETT: No, I feel that there is a really fantastic transatlantic challenge
that has been one of the primary dynamics in the music for the last thirty
years. And by that I mean, both the fact of Americans going to Europe
and performing there and being turned on by audiences who were receptive
to creative music and also meeting up with Europeans and eventually, in
the late '70s, '80s, and now, Europeans coming here and also playing here
and collaborating with musicians here, I think that every time it starts
to feel stagnant on one side of the big pond or the other, something interesting
is happening in the other context. There has been this really interesting
back and forth going on. I would say if anything, maybe, right now is
a period where the European context might have started to feel a little
bit stagnant, but I don't think it is going to because I think it is being
turned on by a lot of what is going on in the United States right now.
I have been a big booster of the European scene in a way, simply because
I think it has been largely neglected in many of the mainstream outlets.
That is changing a little bit with people like Evan Parker and Han Bennink
getting some degree of notoriety even in mainstream press, but there is
still an enormous amount of exciting, creative, challenging music that
was made starting in the mid-'60s and before. I don't like being categorized
as a Euro-phile, but it is a huge interest of mine and I'm not embarrassed
in any way about the fact that I think that there are certain questions
that European improvisers have been willing to ask that a lot of American
improvisers, who were still tied up with the question of defending the
jazz tradition, were unwilling to ask.
You are, along with Howard Mandel, and Jim Macnie, one of a handful of
critics who I even consider reading, but as a critic, is it unethical
for a critic to write about a recording with pre-conceived biases?
CORBETT: I think it is inescapable. You can't possibly escape your own
biases at some level. But if you go into something with a very strong
bias against it that has nothing to do with the music, then you shouldn't
be writing about it. If you go into something where you have a strong
bias against it that is reflected in the music, then you should be able
to articulate it and if you can't articulate it, then you shouldn't write
What is the key to being a good critic?
CORBETT: Being critical and being sympathetic in the right balance.
With all that you are doing, do you find you have enough time just to
manage the grind of daily life?
CORBETT: No. I teach and I am going to take a semester off at the beginning
of next year. I teach at the Art Institute of Chicago. That is actually
my money gig. I enjoy doing it very much.
Because writing doesn't pay anything.
CORBETT: Not very much (laughing).
Any plans for a book?
CORBETT: I have a book that was published in '94 called Extended Play.
I have worked on another one that at some point I will send off to a publisher.
It is finished now. It's a collection of essays and interviews. It is
again, a question of putting it together and send it off in a form that
an editor wouldn't send it back to me. But it is done. It is just a question
of packaging it up. The book is called Microgrooves.
Twenty-four hours is never enough.
CORBETT: It sure isn't.
Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and the annoying itch on the back of your
elbow. Comments? Email