John Corbett Goes on Record

Over the last decade, writer, concert promoter, record producer, disc jockey, and educator John Corbett has had more influence than anyone on how Chicagoans learn about and experience experimental music. He’s chronicled the scene for numerous publications (including this one), cofounded and programmed the Empty Bottle’s acclaimed Wednesday-night jazz series, hosted radio shows on both WNUR and WHPK, and taught hundreds of students at the School of the Art Institute. He’s also overseen a dozen or so of the city’s most significant free-jazz and improv recordings–including Two Days in Chicago, a just-released effort featuring Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg and Chicago tenor giant Fred Anderson on the Swiss Hatology label–and this spring the local Atavistic label will introduce Corbett’s own archival imprint, the Unheard Music Series.

Those who’ve listened to his radio shows are familiar with Corbett’s impossibly deep record collection. The Unheard Music Series–inspired in part by Dexter’s Cigar, the now-defunct reissue label David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke ran when they were still in Gastr del Sol together–will give him a chance to release out-of-print favorites as well as some of the more fascinating obscurities he’s come across over the years. The label will focus on the 60s and 70s, and in particular has a mission to beef up the catalogs of Anderson and Chicago free-jazz icon Hal Russell–one of the first four releases will be a collection of previously unheard Russell recordings culled from nearly 200 tapes spanning several decades. The other three will be Nation Time, the second album by Poughkeepsie jazz legend Joe McPhee; Waves From Albert Ayler, a postbop collection by the little-known Swedish unit the Mount Everest Trio; and a never-heard mid-70s solo saxophone recording by Evan Parker.

A guitarist himself, Corbett’s rarely heard–he performs in town maybe twice a year, and has contributed to a modest handful of records by other people. But that may be about to change: on Tuesday, Atavistic will release I’m Sick About My Hat, his first album as a bandleader. Performed with the help of eight musicians dubbed the Heavy Friends–among them Grubbs, Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson, drummer Hamid Drake, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm–it delivers an invigoratingly succinct distillation of many of Corbett’s musical passions, among them not just jazz and improv but also sound art, noise, dub, rock, funk, and the urban Greek “blues” called rembetika.

Though he plays on more than half the album, Corbett’s primary achievement is the assembly of these elements into exhilarating, sometimes challenging collages, many of which recast familiar texts in jarring new settings. On “Cold Sweat,” for example, he manipulates multiple recordings of his fiancee, violinist Terri Kapsalis, enunciating trademark James Brown phrases like “Give the drummer some” and “When you kiss me I break out in a cold sweat” until she sounds like a lost member of the Residents. The Heavy Friends’ version of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” frames the lyrics of the pop standard–crooned by the Texas Rubies’ Jane Baxter Miller–with monotonous acoustic guitar plucking, chirping birds, and morose organ swells sampled from a 78 and heavily tweaked. But not everything here relies on words: on “Ready Kilowatt,” Drake’s rimshot-crammed reggae backbeat propels abstract, extroverted free-jazz solos by Gustafsson and trombonist Jeb Bishop.

Corbett splits his time similarly between “mixage/montage” and guitar on another recent addition to his discography, Mats Gustafsson & His All-Stars’ Sticky Tongues and Kitchen Knives (Xeric). Despite the title, it’s actually a duo record, but Corbett might as well be several people: on the first half of the album he complements Gustafsson’s prickly abstractions with a dadaist barrage of CD and turntable samples.

On Sunday at the Empty Bottle, Corbett is throwing a release party of sorts for I’m Sick About My Hat–none of the three sets will re-create material from the album. First up are Baxter Miller and bassist Kent Kessler; Corbett joins Dutch reedist Ab Baars for the second set; and the final blowout is by Drake, Ken Vandermark, and Baars and his countryman Han Bennink, who are in town to perform with the ICP Orchestra (see Critic’s Choice).

A Passage From India

Shelly Kumar, president of the local India Classical Music Society, is presenting a major concert independently of the venerable 16-year-old organization, featuring north Indian vocalist Lakshmi Shankar. Shankar, the 73-year-old sister-in-law of Ravi, is being flown in exclusively for her first Chicago performance in more than a decade, a farewell concert for Indian consul general J.C. Sharma. The concert is Sunday at 2 PM at the International House on the campus of the University of Chicago; see the listing in this section or call 708-798-2025 for more info.

Kumar is also starting an Indian classical record label, Sumani Music. His first release, Passage Through Dawn, by violinist Kala Ramnath, should be available in stores shortly; three others should be out by March.

Rai Comment

On Saturday the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute will host the Chicago premiere of 100% Arabica, a comedy set in Paris starring Algerian rai singers Cheb Mami and Khaled. (Mami recently lent his soulful, nasal wail to Brand New Day, Sting’s latest solo release, but you’ll get a much better introduction by checking out Mami’s own Meli Meli, released the same day, which backs his melismas with a colorful, credible blend of rai, hip-hop, flamenco, and Celtic music.) The Film Center was unable to provide an advance copy by my deadline, but reportedly the movie, directed by Mahmoud Zemmouri, takes aim at Islamic fundamentalism, which in recent years has driven many secular artists–including Zemmouri and the two rai greats–from their homeland.


If Marc Anthony is the next Ricky Martin, the 27-year-old Puerto Rican star Elvis Crespo–who performs Saturday at the UIC Pavilion–is the next Marc Anthony. Now’s the time to catch him: Though he’s got two albums in the top 20 of Billboard’s Latin album chart, he has yet to follow Martin or Anthony into international superstardom because he’s yet to record in English. But his recent Pintame (Sony Discos) is a decidedly mainstream burst of effusive, infectious merengue–and the hips know no language barrier.

Her Name Was Danger, a new Lookingglass Theatre production previewing Wednesday through next Saturday, November 20, at the Steppenwolf Studio Theatre, features an original funk score by Rick Sims of the Gaza Strippers (see Spot Check). Sims also has a sizable role in the play, about “the adventures of a James Bond-like heroine determined to renounce her extremely profitable, if larcenous, past.”

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