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.