Written by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
By Dee Dee McNeil
A mainstay on the Los Angeles jazz scene since the mid 1980’s, London-born Benn Clatworthy has been making music for forty-plus years and recently released a new album titled, “System 6: Bennie’s Lament,” on Henry Franklin’s Skipper Productions label. Clatworthy’s musical background is unusual, in that he was drawn to music without any significant early mentoring in the arts.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “I was born in England. As a kid, I was shifted about from Hastings to London, ‘cause dad was living in London and mom was living in Hastings. When they finally made the divorce official, I was around eleven and a little bit out of control. I ended up being sent to a youth authority type school; an experimental place for troubled kids. You didn’t get much attention there, but you had chores to do and not much school work at all that I can remember. From about thirteen-years-old until sixteen, I was there and then returned to London to stay with my father and sometimes other places. In those early years, from eleven to twelve, I was heavy into music. I loved reggae and soul music. I attended dances at the youth clubs and saw the live bands. I was fascinated by them.
“Thinking back, I was always fascinated by music. Early in life, I had piano lessons as a child. I first discovered jazz because I heard this Jamaican fellow, who played saxophone on record named Harold McNair. His music struck a chord inside me. I tried being a drummer for a while and next, a guitarist. After I left that youth authority school, I was still playing around with the guitar. I had a friend, the son of Alexis Korner. In England, everybody came through Korner’s band at that time, or John Mayall’s band. I heard Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy at Alexis Korner’s house. That’s when I sold my guitar for a saxophone.
“I have a brother and a sister who both live in England. I come from an artistic family. My father is a sculptor and a painter. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was Gertrude Lawrence, quite a famous person in musical theater. The song “Body and Soul” was written for her by Johnny Green. She became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway. She was on Broadway in 1952 when she died. She was starring in ‘The King and I.’ She sang classic standards like, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘My Ship.’ Those songs were written for her because she sang in plays that featured those songs. I never met my mum’s mother, but I learned about her later in life. So, maybe music is in the genes,” Benn shared with me.
NOTE: Veteran actress/singer, Gertrude Lawrence, played opposite actor and television director, Yul Brynner in “The King and I” until her unexpected death from cancer a year-and-a-half after the opening. Lawrence garnered Best Actress Award for her part in that Tony winning play.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “My biggest inspirations were Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. They were huge influences and of course, Duke Ellington. Booker Ervin and John Coltrane inspired me too. All those years working as a musician, I never studied with a saxophone teacher until I was twenty-five years old. Yeah, the first time I studied was when I came to the United States. I studied properly with Phil Sobel. I was playing in London, but I didn’t know what I was doing technically. I was working in all the pubs and little clubs and I was always trying to play jazz. One thing I noticed, after working locally in America and overseas, more people come to listen in Europe than in America. They seem to be happy to pay to come and listen and they listen with rapt interest. Jazz is held up in more esteem in Europe than it is here. But in Europe, you don’t get people saying emotionally, ‘Yeah – yeah – play it baby’ like in America. I like to hear that and I like to give some of that back to my audiences.
“I remember being terrified for five weeks preparing for an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and it was great. I wanted to be perfect to perform with the orchestra and with John Beasley’s trio. Roy McCurdy was on the gig and I love playing with Roy. It’s hard to be objective when you’re up on the stage and I was just praying that I played my very best. After the concert, the first violin player came up to me and said I was great. I was so humbled by that. His words really touched me.
“I find myself more into classical music for the last couple of years. Their playing is so technically incredible. They can play these amazing things and I’m trying to write with more harmonics and more knowledge of orchestration. On my albums, I do a bit of original music. I force practicing, but I don’t force writing. I let it come when it wants to,” Benn Clatworthy gave me a glimpse into how he composes.
On this recent 2020 album release, Clatworthy has composed nine of the eleven original songs. For this “Bennie’s Lament” production, (Clatworthy features a group he calls System 6) Benn has assembled some of Southern California’s finest instrumentalists, including Ron Stout on trumpet, Joey Sellers on trombone, Yayo Morales on drums and percussion, Bruce Lett on bass and Bryan Velasco on piano. Clatworthy shows off his competence on tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and alto flute. This album is more Avant-garde than some of the former Clatworthy CDs I’ve reviewed. Additionally, Yayo Morales has composed one song (Two Little Brothers) and Jeremy Sellers offers the other original titled “Good Grape.” I’m used to hearing Clatworthy play more bebop and Straight-ahead music. This album pushes musical boundaries and showcases his composer skills, as well as his technical ability on several woodwind instruments.
I asked Benn what had inspired this project.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “This is actually my work of art. There’s just three of us left from our days of playing in the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band; Joey Sellers, Bryan Velasco and me. Francisco Aquabella was a famous Cuban conga player, born October tenth in 1925, and I worked for a long time in his band. When he died in 2010, I was honored when his family wanted me to continue to lead the band. I tried for a while and I made three records. Two represented the Aquabella Jazz Band and were called Aquabella. Then I changed the name to System 7 because we were a septet. Now it’s become System 6, because there are only six of us in the band.
“I learned a tremendous amount playing with Francisco Aquabella and I started writing music for that group. I wasn’t writing Latin music. I was just writing what comes into my mind at the time. Like on the tune “In Strayhorn’s bag,” I based that song on the first two chords where there’s a dominant seventh with a sharp eleven. It reminded me of a tune by Strayhorn and I developed my tune from there”
Track 10, “In Strayhorn’s Bag” is one of my favorites on this album and it was nice to hear the story of how Clatworthy composed that song. On “How They Talk,” Ron Stout takes the spotlight on trumpet and this is another one of the Clatworthy originals I like a lot. The rhythms on “Two Little Brothers” is intoxicating and Clatworthy brings his bebop chops to this Latin-fused party. I can hear the Coltrane influence on Benn’s title tune, “Bennie’s Lament.”
When he isn’t recording, Benn takes time to teach and motivate young players.
“I’m happy to see so many young people inspired by music. Playing an instrument takes a lot of discipline. Doing anything well takes discipline. You’ve got to practice like your life depends on it. I get up in the morning and practice. Every day, I try to improve as a musician and as a human being,” he told me. “Right now, during this pandemic thing, I’m practicing a lot because there’s no work. We can’t wait to get back on-the-road and promote this CD.”
We can’t wait to hear you and System 6, live and in-person, Benn. Until then, we can pop your recent compact disc on our CD players, sit back and enjoy.