John Corbett’s Microgroove: Forays Into Other Music is a sprawling meander through the multi-tiered world of “alternative” musics, encompassing jazz, rock, blues, avant-classical and literary and visual art forms whose materials and methods comment on aspects of musicality. The far-ranging scope of the 53 essays and interviews collected in these nearly 500 pages, dating from 1993 to just last year, reminds us that even within music’s commercially neglected fringes complex gradations of sub-genre exist, separating the hardcore avant-garde devotee from one who thinks they’re down because they own a copy of Space Is the Place.
Corbett is a record producer (his credits include rereleases of works by seminal AACM saxophonist Fred Anderson and Swiss free-jazz duo Voice Crack), co-owner of Chicago’s Corbett vs. Dempsey art gallery and a critic and essayist whose work has appeared in DownBeat, The Wire, the Chicago Reader and numerous other publications. But first and foremost he is a devotee of challenging and outré sounds, and his essays are most compelling when he dives headfirst into his chronicles with a fan’s enthusiasm and verve. Among the standout pieces in this vein are a diary-style breakdown of an early-2000s U.S. tour led by free-jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzmann; “Six Dispatches From the Memory Bank,” in which Corbett draws on deep personal memories of a half-dozen singular performances from “protean, gritty” Chicago-based saxophonist Ken Vandermark; and “Discaholic or Vinyl Freak?,” a lengthy investigation of Corbett’s record-buying habits, conducted by the Thing saxophonist and fellow record hound Mats Gustafsson. These pieces beautifully balance serious musical scholarship and critical analysis with the kind of collar-grabbing, “give-this-a-listen” excitement that draws us all to music in the first place.
The interviews collected here are largely presented in an unadorned Q&A format, the better for Corbett to bring the character and idiosyncratic thought processes of his subjects to the fore. A tandem chat with pianist-composer Carla Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, who have been married since 1991, captures the couple’s easy rapport and deep understanding of one another, musically and otherwise; when Corbett asks Bley about a comment she once made about the Beatles’ influence on her music, Swallow interjects, “Watch out, she’s going to deny it now. That’s the way she is.” Another joint conversation, with pianist-composer Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink, both founders of the ICP Orchestra, displays such intuitive chemistry that the two collaborators frequently finish one another’s sentences. Corbett also chats with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who is in full enigmatic flower; his comments sometimes seem to barely graze a musical theme while simultaneously illuminating his work in profound fashion. It’s hard not to be moved when Coleman, who died in June at the age of 85, comments that “you have to start with life. It don’t end there; it starts there. The only thing that ends is time.”
Corbett’s curiosities reach beyond the stylistically diffuse world of jazz. Microgroove features two separate tandem conversations with mid-’90s alt-rock darling Liz Phair: one, also featuring Sebadoh’s Lou Barlow, in which they touch on the dangers of record-industry pigeonholing and the pros and cons of the “low-fi” aesthetic; and another with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon that finds the artists tackling the trials of womanhood in the rock universe and grappling with Corbett’s query about whether the all-female Lilith Fair tours represented a form of “ghettoization.” Corbett also includes a 1994 paean to blues queen Koko Taylor (she passed away in 2009), who freely blasts commercial radio for treating blues “like they’re looking down on garbage.” And Corbett explores such curious topics as the aesthetics of cartoon soundtrack scoring; John Cage’s “conceptual Orientalism”; and, in collaboration with cultural critic Terri Kapsalis, the uses and meanings
of female orgasmic sounds in popular music. These latter essays, however, fare the worst in comparison to those surrounding them, since their dry, polysyllabic preaching to the academically inclined purges Corbett’s prose of its inspired-fan edges. It’s there that the bulk of his literary powers reside.