I say, "John Corbett" and what do you think of? Let me try to guess. That tall drink of water who played KBHR radio DJ Chris Stevens on "Northern Exposure." Your thoughts turn invariably to shoulder- length hair and vaguely Kierkegaardian witticisms spewn between sips of steamy chicory and a Buffy St. Marie record. Man, did you know that guy is doing truck commercials now? In any case, this isn't him.
John Corbett is something of a Chicago scenester, journalist, critic, liner notes man, friend to the heavy and the post- alike. Perhaps you know him from his liner notes. He penned notes for the vertiginous Marilyn Crispell, Peter Bröntzman, Hamid Drake jazz set Hyperion, as well as for Jim O'Rourke's Third Straight Day Made Public. Corbett even contributed some guitarwork to Tony Conrad's latter- day minimalist manifesto, Slapping Pythagoras, alongside other Second City luminaries like O'Rourke and David Grubbs. Corbett also hosts "Radio Dada," a strangely addictive Tuesday night radio show on University of Chicago radio wherein Sun Ra is mixed with Binary System and stewed in random gamelan music. And amazingly, the whole show ensues without a single reference to Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
Not content with the many Chicagoland fruit- filled pies that he currently has his fingers in, Corbett has recruited a gaggle of Heavy Friends and recorded I'm Sick About My Hat. Grubbs appears on the album, along with stray members of the Vandermark 5, Swedish avant- sax player Mats Gustafsson, stellar percusionist Hamid Drake among others. Heavy friends, indeed.
The transition from Dada art- music DJ to composer was apparently not a dramatic one. Corbett plays guitar and oversees all the mixage, montage and odd juxtaposing that lend the album form. The sound of the album is an altogether different affair. I would nominally class it with the avant- jazz of players like Drake and Gustafsson, but elements of Grubbs' Gastr del Sol- style production and arrangements are also apparent. On the whole, I'm Sick About My Hat is a strange, poetic opus of squawking horns, speedy sound montage, junkpile vocal samples and elegant guitars. The album is as tight and economical as it is disturbing and difficult: a clipped, twitchy encyclopedia of the Chicago music scene.
Your appreciation of this album will vary with your capacity to suffer art gladly. At times, you will doubtless wonder whether or not you could be making the same kinds of noise by fast forwarding an Ornette Coleman album, and having your friends say random things on cue; invite an ex to contribute hacky bitter poetry for authenticity! Actually, Clark Coolidge's trim poem, "A Note on 'The Mess'" is actually presented tastefully over very Grubbsian guitar plucks, and its elegant musings on the olden days of jazz actually add some thematic clarity to the project.
License for the occasional passages of excess on I'm Sick About My Hat is purchased by the more frequent moments of compelling noise. The overall staccato honk of Corbett's album is an impressive record of jazz in the information age, inflected throughout by the sensibilities of electronic music. This should certainly be a candidate for your requisite arthouse album his year. Perhaps it's like something Nietzsche might have said once.
--Brent S. Sirota, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/c/corbett_john/im-sick-about-my-hat.shtml [Dec 2004]
Extended Play : Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein (1994) - John Corbett
Extended Play : Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein (1994) - John Corbett [Amazon.com]
The reasons for Corbett's increasing prominence among music writers become crystal-clear in his debut collection of articles. Although he writes authoritatively, he never loses a fan's sense of awe. He describes the impact of a wide variety of players, including P-Funk architect George Clinton, dub reggae maestro Lee ("Scratch") Perry, Dutch free-improv drummer Han Bennink, and Siberian overtone singer Sainkho Namtchylak. His profiles of such legendary musicians as Sun Ra (especially) are insightful, and several of his interview transcriptions--including one derived from a game Corbett invented for John Cage to randomly choose his own questions--are historically valuable. And in the theoretical chapters of the book's first part, Corbett often uses seemingly innocuous pop archetypes--such as the backup singer--to comment on the political and social forces that shape modern culture. For all listeners. Aaron Cohen [...]
I'm Sick About My Hat (1999) - John Corbett & Heavy Friends
- I'm Sick About My Hat (1999) - John Corbett & Heavy Friends [Amazon.com]
Even if you don't know who John Corbett is in relation to the burgeoning Chicago post- rock/avant-jazz scene, you must admit he does have some heavy friends: trombonist Jeb Bishop, drummer Hamid Drake, multi-reedist Mats Gustaffson, and cellist Fred Lonberg- Holm, among them. Corbett, who is best known for his role as a Chi-Town promoter, organizer, and pontificator, has sparked these musicians to enter his half-baked soundworld of tape slicing and randomness. Trombone solos end in electronic swoops. Saxophone blurps create neo-Beefheartian squatpiles of uninspired improv expressionism. Creaky acoustic-guitar motifs, repeated throughout, fail to evoke the blues/folk tradition intended or to anchor the "pieces." Much of these moody yet skronky, uselessly abstract flavors create a definite whiff of art-prank. The Barnes & Barnes/early-San-Francisco-art-punk-style "cover" of James Brown's "Cold Sweat" is probably the most egregious outburst. Nothing more than the lyrics of said minimalist groove-anthem spouted onto pitch-altered tape, it fails to reveal the Dada poetry Corbett apparently felt was present in Brown's writings; instead, the listener glimpses a certain unmistakable grad-student smarminess. Real listener pleasure applications for this are frankly unclear. -- Phil Freeman, JAZZIZ Magazine Copyright © 2000, Milor Entertainment, Inc. via Amazon.com
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