Funk maestro George Clinton, the late jazz visionary Sun Ra, and reggae madman Lee “Scratch” Perry are all extraterrestrials. Or so contends John Corbett in his first collection of music criticism, Extended Play, just published by Duke University Press. Cutting across demarcations that isolate jazz from rock or experimental from reggae, Corbett posits with vigor and panache that these three disparate musicians share the metaphor of outer space as a habitat free from earth’s artistic and social oppression. Despite their wildly different worlds, all three, Corbett concludes, have arrived at a similar spot.
As a music writer of increasing visibility, Corbett straddles several worlds. His book is divided into three sections. The first collects theoretical, academic-oriented writings that have appeared in highbrow journals like Stanford Humanities Review and Semiotext(e), while the other two sections consist of energetic profiles and straight artist interviews, largely drawn from pieces published in listener-friendly magazines like Option and Down Beat. (Corbett recently began writing for the Reader as well.) Obviously the tone of the academic pieces differs greatly from the journalistic efforts. “I was trying to find a way to make different music discourses rub elbows, in terms of genre of writing,” says Corbett, “and in terms of genre of music.” Corbett leaps enthusiastically from blues pianist Pinetop Perkins to anarchopunks the Ex to postmodern composer John Cage.
Corbett began writing about music as an undergraduate at Brown University, where he studied semiotics. He moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern, recently earning his PhD in radio/television/film. Corbett doesn’t just write about music; he also teaches it (at the School of the Art Institute), plays guitar, and has produced experimental music concerts. “I’m interested in experimenting with ideas as they relate to music,” he says, “and using music to spur me to have new ideas.”
A book-signing party at 6 PM Sunday at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee, will feature performances by saxophonist Fred Anderson (a subject in the book), NRG Ensemble, who will play tunes written by Sun Ra and Clinton, and Lynn Book, who will perform excerpts from Kurt Schwitters’s dadaist work “Ursonate.” Corbett plans to improvise on guitar with David Grubbs, Ken Vandermark, and Gene Coleman. Admission to the party is $5. Call 235-2334 for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.