Bobby Naughton Units: Understanding (JAPO 60006)


Bobby Naughton Units

Perry Robinson clarinet
Mark Whitecage flute, basset born
Richard Yongstein or Mario Pavone bass
Randy Kaye or Laurence Cook percussion
Bobby Naughton vibraphone, piano, clavinet
Recorded October 30, 1971 in concert at Yale University and at Blue Rock Studio, New York
Engineer Eddie Korvin
Originally produced in USA by Otic Records, a musicians’ cooperative

Self-taught composer-performer Bobby Naughton has been playing the vibraphone professionally since 1966. From silent film scoring to a stint with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, not to mention a regular spot alongside Leo Smith (see 1979’s Divine Love), Naughton has since developed his craft by way of a unique, eclectic career. In 1971, Naughton and a handful of trusted musicians took a dip into the JAPO pool with Understanding. Recorded both in studio and in concert (with a slight change in roster between each), it documents a singular shuffle of original tunes and those of Carla Bley.

Bley and Naughton’s styles could hardly be more different, making their combination on this album all the more appropriate. Comparing the former’s title track with the latter’s follow-up, “Austin Who,” one finds a shift from the charcoal strokes of drummer Randy Kaye and Naughton’s own balance of melody and affect to a haunting look inward to places of delicate unrest. It is a fascinating diptych. Of the remaining Bley selections, the popular “Ictus” gets a gargling treatment, finding chaos and color in the tactile playing of clarinetist Perry Robinson. In it one can taste sunset and the excitement of evening’s promise. “Gloria” is the glistening heart of the set, a tender and questioning act of impression which, much like the opener, brushes its way into the ear, catching hair cells unawares with its jaggedness, pausing as if inhaling.

Naughton’s compositions unfurl a uniquely uplifting spread of descriptive moods. Sleigh bells, for instance, let us know that “Snow” is on the way. What ensues is not a song of winter’s dread, however, but of its thaw, each touch of percussion another clump rattling from the branches. Laurence Cook’s beautiful cymbal work in “V.A.” sparks an unusual conversation of wind and water, while for “Nital Rock” Naughton breaks out the clavinet for some electric throwback. Mark Whitecage does phenomenal things with the basset horn here, running a hundred errands at once.

This is a pot of water ever on the verge of boiling.

… . …

In an effort to better understand the context in which this album took shape, I interviewed Mr. Naughton, who kindly offered his succinct wisdom. Below is what transpired.

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me a little about how you came to the vibraphone? Or did it come to you?
Bobby Naughton: I had been playing a lot of funky and out-of-tune pianos. The clarity of the vibraphone was appealing. And the keyboard was familiar. I went for it.

TG: As a self-taught musician, do you find that you approach performance in any way different from those with strictly formal training?
BN: I have no idea. As a child I had years of piano lessons, but am self-taught on the vibraphone. My formal education is in the liberal arts. My approach to performance? Prepare to lay it all on the line. Every time.

TG: How did Understanding come to fruition?
BN: I don’t know. Not by plan. It evolved.

TG: What was behind your decision to focus on the music of Carla Bley? Was she involved in the project in any way?
BN: No decision. Investigations led me to Carla’s compositions. Incredibly meaty and detailed stuff. No, Carla had no involvement.

TG: Looking back at your recorded output, how does Understanding fit into the sounds you have forged in, say, The Haunt or Zoar? What does the album mean for you?
BN: Each album covers quite a different area. Understanding is broader in scope and personnel. For example, the title composition is a tone row, a twelve tone piece, and “V.A.” is a graphic score.

TG: What were the circumstances that led you to work with Leo Smith?
BN: In the early 70s a JAPO employee wrote to me that Leo lived a few towns away in Connecticut. I called him and we met.

TG: Can you sketch me a picture of how the Divine Love recording session went down?
BN: A happening at the highest level.

TG: How would you describe your own compositions to those who haven’t heard them?
BN: Melodic and suggestive. Structures for improvisation.

TG: What would you say has been the most fulfilling aspect of your career thus far?
BN: Survival. It’s been musically rewarding but tempered by resources. You have to love it to do it.

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