on Vinyl Freak: Love Letters To A Dying Medium by John Corbett (Duke University Press)

If you grew up in the age of vinyl, you can probably name the first 45’s and LP’s you owned. The relationship with the music was physical: handling the disks, peering at the cover art, re-reading the notes, and attending to the turntable. “At five I was listening to a Peter Rabbit record that had a big impact,” writes John Corbett at the outset of Vinyl Freak. “Peter expresses confusion about why he sometimes misbehaves, singing: ‘Why do I do it? What can it be?’ The way he phrased it, I heard ‘do it’ as one word. ‘Why does doyt mean?’ I asked my mother … When I trace my interest in sound poetry, I think this is its origin.”

978-0-8223-6366-8_pr.jpgAbout vinyl aficionados we might ask, “Why do they do it?” Since the vast majority of analog music recorded on vinyl that 99.9% of us want is now digitized, what’s so fascinating about the remnants of vinyl? To initiate us into this subculture (comprising many sub-sub-cultures), Corbett wrote a column for 12 years called “Vinyl Freak” for Downbeat magazine. When he launched the series in 2000, vinyl had not yet resurged. As a result, his columns trace a revival, focusing on rare items in his own collection, his avid pursuit of obscure recordings, and the hidden histories of limited editions and re-releases. Vinyl Freak includes 85 of his articles, complemented by seven brief essays about his personal obsessions. His column covered recordings that were unavailable at the time of writing, but Vinyl Freak offers updates on those records that have resurfaced in one form or another.

His writing often covers obscure jazz albums by major players – Philly Joe Jones, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Archie Shepp, Max Roach, or Cecil Taylor. Corbett unspools his jazz history impressively, and his ear and pen are acutely attuned to each other. For instance, his piece on Herbie Mann’s LP Great Ideas of Western Mann (1957) is a micro-history of the bass clarinet (“It was a prominent part of the tonal palette in novelty bands and in cartoon music”) and its occasional use by Buddy DeFranco and Eric Dolphy. Corbett went hunting for the Mann album thinking it might turn out to be “the first full-fledged bass clarinet LP in jazz” -- but found something else:

Mann.jpg“Strange to find this anomalous 1957 LP, released on Riverside, with erstwhile clarinetist, then flutist, then bass clarinetist, then flutist again, forever, Herbie Mann leading on entire session on nothing but the long black wooden horn. It was clearly seen, by its producers and musicians alike, as a stunt, almost an impossible one, but this little item appears at the cusp of the big breakout of new timbres and instrumentations in jazz in the 60’s. In that sense, it looks forward to players like David Murray or Ken Vandermark, who don’t think twice about using the bass clarinet on the front line.” Postscript: the album was reissued in 2008.

For audiophiles in general with an appreciation of the anomalous, Vinyl Freak will point to singular performances by musicians perhaps unfamiliar to most of us – Staffan Harde, Tristan Meinecke, The Three Souls, Johnny Shacklett, Klaus Doldinger, Paul Smoke Trio, Ernie and Emilio Cacares, Baikida Carroll – and on and on. Corbett describes himself as “a freak, not a snob” and a collector not a hoarder. In a piece on Melvin Jackson’s Funky Skull (1969), he says, “There are a few ways that rare vinyl circulates these days. Collectors hoard and swap and sell and buy the goods; eBay is a magnet for febrile discaholics. Then there are straight-up music fans who don’t fetishize the LP’s as objects, but treasure them exclusively for the precious sounds encoded in their grooves. Somewhere in between – half collector and half music lover – there’s a shadowy character who seeks out the hard-to-find sounds for delectable samples he or she can use in hip-hop or as material for dance mixes.”

Unknown_1.jpegSince I’m a big Art Pepper fan, Corbett’s lively take on Chile Pepper (1956) sent me looking for the album on iTunes – no luck. The track by that title appears on my copy of Surf Ride (1956). “Sometimes, it’s very difficult to figure out the exact flight of a given recording,” he writes. “Perhaps, for instance, you might pick up a copy of the CP records (short for Charlie Parker) issue of this music, as I did, drawn by the irresistible force of its utterly grotesque cover image.” It so happens that the CP issue “is actually a cut-rate reissue of an earlier release of exactly the same music, published on Tampa Records under the title Abstract Art.” Corbett’s postscript sent me off to locate a 2005 reissue titled Chili Pepper (yes, the ‘chili’ respelled) “sporting a benign redesign with an anachronistic photo of A.P. and lots of extra tracks. But where’s the carne?”

MI0001764247.jpgMy copy of Vinyl Freak came with a “limited edition flexi-disc” of Sun Ra’s version of “It’s A Good Day” (written by Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour). In an essay, Corbett describes his purchase of rights to a sprawling Sun Ra archive, now conserved for researchers. Apparently, this overload of material cured Corbett of excessive collecting once and for all.

The headline in the arts section of the July 24 Wall Street Journal reads: “Why Vinyl’s Latest Boom Is Over.” But most of the disappointment arises from the high cost and low sound quality of reissues not based on original tapes. No matter. Follow Corbett and you may get bitten by the bug to scour the earth for a copy of the Bill Dixon Orchestra’s 1967 masterpiece Intents and Purposes. Never heard of that one, did you?

[Published June 2, 2017. 264 pages, 208 color illustrations, $24.95 paperback]