AMN Reviews: Bobby Naughton – Solo Vibraphone Hartford [OTIC Records OTIC 1016]

Since its founding in 1975, Hartford, Connecticut’s Real Art Ways, originally an upstairs space on Asylum Street and since moved to Arbor Street, where it still operates, has provided a hospitable venue for avant-garde visual artists and musicians. During the late 1970s through the early 1980s, RAW often hosted concerts put on by New Haven’s Creative Music Improvisers’ Forum. On August 5, 1978, vibraphonist Bobby Naughton, a founding member of CMIF, played a solo concert there; fortunately it was recorded by RAW’s then-director Joseph Celli and has now been released for the first time on Naughton’s OTIC label.

For this set Naughton put together a program that included compositions by Wadada Leo Smith, Charles Mingus and Carla Bley, as well as a flute etude by Joachim Andersen that Naughton adapted to vibes, two standards, and an original composition. These choices, as varied as they are, serve not only to demonstrate Naughton’s versatility as a performer, but show as well the kind of open-minded ferment that characterized so much of the creative music of the period.

Smith’s Hapnes, Portrait of Braxton, for example, is a largely linear composition made up of asymmetrical phrases with irregular accents. Smith’s concept at the time was to create melodies delineated by silences; Naughton’s playing respects these boundaries while maintaining a sense of forward motion. Bley’s Ictus, a piece first recorded in 1961 by the trio of Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, presents its own set of challenges by threading its lines through constantly changing time signatures, to be played “as fast as possible.” After introducing the piece with gongs and drumming, Naughton races sure-footedly through the melody, as required. By contrast, Naughton plays Jesus Maria, also by Carla Bley, with a gently rocking rhythm and lyrical feeling. His interpretation of Mingus’ Goodbye Porkpie Hat is suitably poignant.

The briskly paced Andersen etude is an unusual choice, and in some ways the most audacious, but it’s one that Naughton turns into a virtuoso display of disciplined mallet work. His own Untold Tale, which opens the set, is a pianistic piece that seems to tell of Naughton’s own roots as a keyboard player. It also introduces a degree of timbral exploration in the form of struck metal objects and muted keys.

Although Solo Vibraphone Hartford is a forty-year-old archival recording, it gives the listener the feeling of being right there in the room above Asylum Street—even as the sound of a siren punctuating Goodbye Porkpie Hat brings home the reality of improvising in an urban environment, where anything could happen either inside or outside the performance space. It documents Naughton during a period when he was working in ensembles ranging from trios to large groups, as part of CMIF, Leo Smith’s New Dalta Ahrki, and on his own projects. Thus it’s a real pleasure to hear him in the intimate setting of a solo performance, where his voice as an improviser and interpreter of others’ compositions can clearly be heard.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Bobby Naughton – The Haunt [No Business Records NBCD 105]

For a period of about a decade—from, roughly, the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s—New Haven, Connecticut was home to an exciting creative music community. Some of the principal figures were homegrown, some were from elsewhere, but the meeting of talent produced a cross-fertilization of ideas that resulted in excellent music, some of which was documented and some of which was not. Fortunately, the music on The Haunt, the 1976 recording led by Bobby Naughton, was not only recorded and issued in its time, but has been reissued by the fine No Business Records label as well.

Naughton, a largely self-taught vibraphonist and composer from Boston who lived and worked in New Haven during the 1970s, is joined on The Haunt by trumpeter Leo Smith (before he became Wadada Leo Smith). Smith, like Naughton, was a central figure in the New Haven creative music scene of the time; both worked closely together in small groups and as founders of the Creative Musicians Improvisors Forum, New Haven’s AACM-like artists’ collective. The third voice on the record is that of New York clarinetist Perry Robinson who, sadly, died at the end of last year.

Originally released on Otic, Naughton’s self-run label, the music still sounds astringently fresh and surprising over forty years later. A good part of the reason for this is the unusual instrumentation: clarinet, trumpet, and vibes are supplemented by no rhythm section for maintaining a pulse or even just a bass instrument to ground the harmonies. Consequently, the music tends to have a floating, harmonically open feel to it. The trio has been compared to a chamber ensemble, but even then it’s an extraordinary one. The vibes provide the frame, as would the piano in a chamber trio, but the other two instruments have a more complicated and unorthodox relationship, given the trumpet and clarinet’s similarities of compass and the peculiarities of their timbral interaction. At the upper end of their registers, they can be hard to distinguish; at the lower end, the two voices peel apart, the hollow warmth of the clarinet tempering the trumpet’s strident brassiness. Smith and Robinson both seem to intuit the implications of this dynamic and interlace their lines around each other in order to bring out the subtlest shadings of color; Naughton also is adept at altering the overall timbre of the music by using changes in register to converge on and diverge from the other two instruments. The title track, with its unisons, counterpoint and alternating leads from all three voices exemplifies the group’s painting with aural colors; a track like Ordette shows Naughton’s mastery at building textural variety with the deft arrangement of solo voices and ensemble passages; Slant demonstrates the timbral possibilities unlocked by harmonized melodies and the simultaneous play of independently improvised lines. The rapport among all three is extraordinary and given full opportunity to unfold within the unhurried tempos and open spaces of Naughton’s compositions.