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.