Over the last twenty years John Corbett has walked the floor of that ocean of music on the border of tomorrow - listening to jazz, free improvisation and "other music" alongside those cultural pop musicians whose works challenge the boundaries of cultural taste. His many roles in and out of the music scene have brought us an uncanny assessment of musical history both sonic and written. A teacher, producer, author, radio host and musical curator, he is the key element behind Atavistic's Unheard Music Series.
A retrospective of impossible-to-find, never-released and out-of-print jazz and improvised music, Corbett's Unheard Series has unearthed over thirty titles in just over 2 years. Like a time capsule, each CD takes the listener back to the period that produced the music, allowing them an experience of timeless modernity and excitement that only artists striving toward the future can produce. The series is not an exercise in juxtaposition, rather we see the long line of European masters like Peter Brotzmann, Han Bennink,and Alexander Von Schlippenbach sittting comfortably next to American giants such as Hal Russell, Joe McPhee, and Fred Anderson with the accent on creation. Corbett's all encompasing ears guide the program through the twists and turns of recent and not so recent avant music history.
R&N spoke to John about his various projects and the depth of his involvment with the Unheard Music Series.
R&N: Tell us something about your activities in music.
JC: I wear quite a few hats, these days. My musical activities break down into nine areas: live event production; archival CD production; new CD production; teaching; radio; writing/reviewing; performing improvised music; and working in the studio. In the first area, together with Ken Vandermark I book a weekly jazz and improvised music series at a club called the Empty Bottle; we've had the series for more than six years now and we've just hosted our sixth annual festival in April. I also do a variety of other booking and presenting, and most recently I've been appointed Artistic Director of the Berlin JazzFest for 2002 - a big job that I'm enjoying very much. In CD production, I curate the Unheard Music Series via Atavistic Records and I produce a variety of other one-off projects by different musicians. I'm Associate Adjunct Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I am currently chair of an interdisciplinary area called Exhibition Studies. Together with fellow critics Lloyd Sachs and Kevin Whitehead, I do a weekly jazz radio program on WNUR-FM called "Writer's Bloc." I write reviews for Down Beat, where I also have a regular column called "Vinyl Freak," which covers out-of-print LPs; I also sometimes write for the Reader and the Sun-Times. I often compose liner notes for CDs and less often compose articles for scholarly journals and books. I've just contracted my second book, MICROGROOVE: FURTHER FORAYS INTO OTHER MUSIC, which will be published by Duke University Press. Sometimes I play guitar in various ad hoc and continuing groups, on average probably one gig per month, and I'm trying now to finish the second installation in a triptych of John Corbett & Heavy Friends CDs, studio concoctions. The first was I'M SICK ABOUT MY HAT; the next one will be called BORROWED TIME (both issued on Atavistic).
R&N: How and why did you start the Unheard Music Series ?
JC: The idea for UMS came from a trip I took to Germany to observe various German radio archives. I'd heard that there were tape collections being "downsized," and I understood that this probably meant that marginal musics like free improvisation would be the first to go. Afraid that important historical materials were at risk, I travelled across Germany on a Fellowship from the Goethe Institut, and the incredible things I discovered gave me a lot to think about when I got home. Initially, I planned a three-CD box surveying the free music scene in Germany in the `60s, exclusively focusing on groups or constellations of musicians that had never had a commerical release. This was meant to cast some light on our own situation in the US, where there is no such archive; American radio paid little attention to free music in the `60s, certainly didn't do anything to document it in any systematic way. And any such archives that were produced (with precious exceptions like the WBAI Free Music Store archives in NYC) were most likely destroyed over the past 40 years of cultural neglect. So, it seemed like an idea to show what a fantastic, continuous documentation European radio had made of its own - even, in some cases, of American - creative musics from the `60s forward.
But this idea soon morphed into a larger one: Unheard Music Series. I sat down with Kurt Kellison from Atavistic and described a large scale project that would involve issuing never-released tapes (from radio, private collections, anywhere) and out-of-print LPs. He was very enthusiastic, and two years later we've got a catalogue of over 30 titles. The basic notion, now, is that these are musics that might otherwise be consigned to the dustbin of history. There's been a wonderful surge of interest in free and creative musics, but many of the classic recordings are inobtainable except for collectors willing to shell out huge sums for rare LPs. We believe that this is music that should be available for anyone who's interested in it, that it's fundamentally a people's music, something that shouldn't be for connoiseurs alone. So that's what we've been trying to do - dig up classic and otherwise unknown free jazz, improvised music, electro-acoustic, freebop. We're now working on some things that might surprise people who think they know what our profile is, including some early drum solos by Baby Dodds and private tapes of swing/bop trombonist Tommy Turk. Great music is great music, whatever title you hang on it.
R&N: What are the most recent and forthcoming Unheard Music Series releases?
JC: We've been working on the FMP Archive Edition, an ongoing group of reissues culled from the great Free Music Production discography, the most important German improvised music label. Just out are two classics, EUROPEAN ECHOES by Manfred Schoof and his enormous orchestra (featuring three pianists!), which was the very first FMP record, and Alexander Schlippenbach's THE LIVING MUSIC, one of my very favorite records of European free jazz, featuring some of the best early Peter Brötzmann. We've also recently issued Brötzmann's 1967 debut FOR ADOLPHE SAX, a marvelous trio recording augmented by a never heard radio track with pianist Fred van Hove. Not long back we uncovered a lost 1973 session by St. Louis saxophone maniac Luther Thomas, with great drummer Charles Bobo Shaw; that music is released on a disc titled BANANA. One of the greatest LPs of free improvised music ever made, WHITE EARTH STREAK by guitarist Davey Williams, violinist LaDonna Smith, bassist Torsten Müller and trombonist Günter Christmann has been reissued in a deluxe edition with two booklets, exhaustive liner notes by Hal Rammel and bonus material. And we're continuing to issue multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee's terrific early records, most recently his 1967 debut UNDERGROUND RAILROAD. Coming soon are two more Brötzmann discs, his 1970 classic BALLS and a previously unheard set of recordings made at the sessions that produced NIPPLES; he's chosen the title MORE NIPPLES. We're also proud to be releasing some legendary and historically crucial recordings by Sun Ra from 1960, lost LPs by Italian saxophonist Mario Schiano and Dutch pianist Kees Hazevoet (with drummer Louis Moholo), and a compilation of material by the British improvising quartet Alterations, hand-chosen by musician/writer David Toop.