Label Spotlight

Corbett vs. Dempsey
By Ken Waxman

As commerce continues to be divided between mass and class, the music business has followed suit. On one side are the remaining major record companies turning out “product” as cheaply and quickly as they can, and on the other so-called boutique labels whose releases are selected and manufactured with the utmost care. One of the quirkiest of the latter is Corbett vs. Dempsey (CvD), a decade-old Chicago-based imprint that along with a publishing outlet is a division of an art gallery co-owned by John Corbett and Jim Dempsey. CvD has so far put out 25 discs, ranging from reissues of major LPs by Joe McPhee and Peter Brötzmann to obscurities by the likes of George Davis and Staffan Harde to brand-new CDs by Thurston Moore and Mats Gustaffsson.

Says Corbett: “The primary criterion for release on CvD is that it’s music that moves us deeply. We’re not committed to a specific style or aesthetic; there are things in very different arenas that trip our trigger and we’re happy to work with them. Of course, we’ve been more involved with jazz and improvised music, from a production standpoint than anything else, but as it was with the Unheard Music Series, I’m very happy to throw a curve ball into the game when needed.”

The Unheard Music Series (UMS) was an imprint of Chicago’s Atavistic Records that Corbett, who has authored several books on music, curated from 1999 to 2010, releasing about 75 sessions from the ‘60s and ‘70s. A couple of years after the CvD gallery, which specializes in contemporary art was founded in 2004, Corbett tapered off his UMS activities, brought that operation along with reissues was added to the mandate.

Another change was presentation, which today encompasses distinctive high-quality formats. “We take great care with the packaging, and we’ve learned a lot in the last few years about how to manufacture CDs. Now we’re doing tipped-on covers that act like mini LPs. We tend to do small runs of 1,000 or 1,500, reprinting if needed. There’s no rule except whatever seems to be needed by the project at hand,” elaborates Corbett. The gallery hosts concerts every six weeks or so, and among the books it publishes are Wadada Leo Smith’s notes, three volumes of Brötzmann’s art, and a Brötzmann brochure relating his work as graphic designer and musician. “We work with a few musicians who are also very accomplished artists and in Brötzmann’s case we also represent his visual art,” states Corbett.

Most CDs replicate the initial packaging. “For instance”, reports Corbett: “with Tom Prehn’s Axiom CD, we made sure the tip-on matched the original, which only went about one-third of the way around the back of the cover. Details count.” Except for one seven-inch single, Joe McPhee’s “Cosmic Love”, most CvD records are single CDs. The exception is McPhee’s Nation Time, a three-CD box set. “The McPhee box required a full new design, but it has the original designs on the CD slipcases inside,” notes Corbett. Declares Gustafsson, who is featured on three CvD CDs and co-produced the session by guitarist Staffan Harde: “I think the packaging is really ideal now… thick cardboards rules! The only negative aspect being it’s not vinyl. I am a vinyl freak, but I do see the advantages with the CD: easier to handle and ship etc. and when the design is on the level as is the case with CvsD – it rules!”

With eight releases and counting McPhee is the artist most represented on CvD, and for good reason. “I’ve produced many different records with Joe for various labels, and am close friends with him, as is Jim,” states Corbett. “We both think he’s one of the most important musicians of our time. He’s been very productive over the years and not all of his recordings – including some of the very best – have seen light of day. We’ve set ourselves the task of reissuing his most significant LPs and continuing to issue new and never-before-released music.” McPhee, who has worked with numerous labels in his long career, echoes this enthusiasm with his usual concision. “Working with Corbett vs Dempsey is a dream given form. Great care and attention is given to every project with respect due a work of art.”

Gustafsson says that he and Corbett are “talking about projects, new and old all the time. We have an ongoing discussion with each other about rare vinyl, rare tapes etc. etc., anything with spectacular music. I call John right away when I find something extremely rare and vice versa. And whenever CvD wants to make a record with me, I usually say yes. I like the mix of what CvD is doing: new and old ... old and new… old and dreams. Isn’t it amazing how much great music there is out there not released or forgotten? Some of it just has to come out. So, why not do it?”

Only rarely do musicians offer product to the label. Even then, avers Corbett, “our approach to producing is artist-centered. I’m less interested in putting my stamp on something than I am in facilitating the artist's vision. We’re here to get out of the way of the artists. Our job is more or less the same on the newly recorded and reissued music. In fact, there may be more decisions to make in terms of curation on the older material, where choices of what to include and exclude are often involved.” Adds Gustafsson: “It has always been like that with John. If you add his insane amount of knowledge and wisdom into that picture, there’s no way back. There are a lot of enthusiastic label owners that I’ve worked with over the years but with John it’s a special thing. It’s mostly about the forgotten gems, the hidden secrets of the scene, that’s what we want to reveal, archival shit.” Most discs are re-mastered from the original tapes. A few, such as two of McPhee’s Hat Huts and Prehn’s Axiom were re-mastered from vinyl, while George Davis’ Scapula: Bop Acetates, Chicago, 1949 was literally mastered from acetates.

CvD recently purchased around 40 tapes from Hat Art, including most of its Steve Lacy sessions and all of McPhee’s. These will be released soon, along with discs from Eugene Chadbourne. The next three CvDs however will be Push-Pull, a Jimmy Lyons two-CD set; Philip Wilson’s Esoteric, solos and duets with Olu Dara; and Marshmallow Moon Decorum, a new recording by guitarist Moore and drummer Frank Rosaly

“We’ll be issuing some sound poetry in the future, and we could imagine putting out contemporary classical music or bluegrass, if the right things came along,” muses Corbett. “For us, there should be some urgency to issuing the music, either because it fills in important gaps or it’s so powerful that it needs to be heard right away. There are already so many labels that we’re very selective, issuing fewer rather than more CDs. We try to treat each one with the care it deserves.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2016