I’ve written often about John Corbett, and his multifaceted resumé makes it easy—he’s a professor, art gallerist, record producer, music journalist, and musician, as well as (full disclosure) a longtime friend of mine. In fact, ten days ago I covered a new reissue from Corbett vs. Dempsey, the label he runs with his gallery partner, Jim Dempsey.
Earlier this month Corbett’s latest book, Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium, was published by Duke University Press. It consists largely of every installment of a monthly column called Vinyl Freak that he wrote for jazz magazine Down Beat between 2000 and 2012. When Corbett started the column, the vinyl format had already been pronounced dead, but he wasn’t quite ready to accept that diagnosis. I know some people who own more vinyl records than Corbett does, but his collection outclasses every one I’ve ever had the pleasure of picking through.
Corbett is a listener first and foremost, but he also adores records as physical objects. His column celebrated vinyl as the most durable, beautiful, and collectable format for recorded music, and he paid special attention to music that hadn’t yet made the transition to the digital realm. The book adds postscripts to most of its entries, detailing which items have been reissued, either on LP or CD or as downloads. (For what it’s worth, Corbett’s own reissue label has embraced the CD.) Of course, in the years since Corbett launched his column, vinyl has made an incredible comeback—and zealots such as Corbett have almost certainly contributed to the shift.
Most of the entries in Vinyl Freak discuss jazz and improvised music, in keeping with Corbett’s tastes and the focus of the publication that ran the original column. But the book also includes all sorts of outliers from rock, funk, contemporary classical, and international music. The essays whet my appetite and get me pumped to hear the records they describe, whether they’re old favorites or new to me. In fact I’ve already ordered some of the albums Corbett wrote about.
The original essays are witty and erudite, and cumulatively they serve as a giddy rejection of canon—Corbett makes a powerful argument that any list of the best or most important recorded music is necessarily a failure. When guitarist Joe Morris replied to a Vinyl Freak column to protest the praise it heaped on obscure Swedish guitarist Staffan Harde, who’d made only one record, Corbett responded, “Who cares whether anyone outside of Sweden has heard Harde? We should be hungry to hear things we haven’t heard, open to the idea that something (even something historical) might surprise us. That’s the subtext of this column. Icons sometimes deserve their iconic status, but on the other hand sometimes great music thinkers don’t get their due. Or people create one incredible record, then fall off into making trivial fluff. Should we think less of that one record?”
The Vinyl Freak book augments the collected columns with short blurbs on an additional 113 records that fall into the category of free jazz, experimental, and improvised music—Corbett’s most passionate interest. My favorite parts are the essays Corbett wrote to contextualize his aesthetic principles and reflect on his history with records. He explains his attachment to vinyl, discusses what made him keep digging, and meditates on the value of record collecting as a means for social interaction.
The most remarkable essay is a detailed, poetic recollection of the way Corbett came to obtain a massive trove of Sun Ra-related material. The collection—all manner of recordings, writings, ephemera, album art, and more—was formerly housed by onetime manager Alton Abraham, and it served as the source for the wonderful exhibition “Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn & Chicago’s Afro-Futurist Underground, 1954-68.” Corbett organized it with his wife, Terri Kapsalis, and curator Anthony Elms, and it opened at the Hyde Park Art Center in 2006.
The chapter provides a blow-by-blow of Corbett’s efforts to save this material from oblivion—he would eventually produce the exhibition, several publications, and multiple recordings from it. (An excerpt of that chapter has been published on the website Lit Hub.) But the most interesting element is the fact that the collection brought on a sort of existential crisis, as Corbett realized he suddenly had so much more than he could have possibly imagined.
Terri, ever wiser than I, discussed these unfamiliar feelings with me. “You know, there’s such thing as too much happiness. It’s not good for you to be too excited all the time.” This thought had never occurred to me, raised in a conventional pleasure-seeking household. “Happiness and excitement can be attachments.” I recognized a Buddhist line of thought. “It seems to be that with all these things, you’ve gotten everything you could ever want, and now you’re becoming too attached to them. We don’t really own anything. You can’t take it with you.”
Corbett continues, “I found the notion of going record hunting slightly absurd—what could ever top the two days in the Alton house? And Terri’s word rang true: we didn’t own any of it, we were stewards, keepers, hyperspecialized salvagers.”
He and Kapsalis eventually gave the Sun Ra material to the Chicago Jazz Archives of the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Chicago. Corbett still has an obscene record collection, but he’s realized that his greatest mission is to share and educate—to arrange things so that others can experience the joy that he does. As much as anything I’ve read by him, Vinyl Freak does precisely that.