A Horn Man’s Search for Singularity : Benn Clatworthy wants to be able to speak as freely on the sax as he can in conversation
One doesn’t have to listen to tenor saxophonist Benn Clatworthy for long to realize that the energetic, enthusiastic jazz musician knows his way around both his instrument and the think-fast demands of jazz improvisation.
Take a Thursday night not too long ago at the attractive Glendale Grill in Glendale. Clatworthy, a 35-year-old native of Hastings, England, was leading his regular quartet--Cecilia Coleman, piano; Jimmy Hoff, bass, and Kendall Kay, drums--through a spirited, invigorating program of originals, jazz classics and evergreen pop standards.
“Dexter,” a buoyant, medium-tempo Clatworthy composition, exemplified the proceedings. An ear-pleasing tune with its share of twists and turns, it allowed the saxophonist to release anything from bouquets of pretty notes, some enhanced by a firm, brief vibrato, and rolling-boil double times to vaulting leaps and expressionistic angular essays. These statements were transmitted by a gleaming, singing sound that was sometimes light and dancing, sometimes dusky and foggy. All in all, one heard a very fluid musical display from a man obviously in control of, and at home with, his craft.
The horn man, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1980, finds steady employment playing jazz in such Southland rooms as the Glendale Grill and Jax in Glendale, Dodsworth’s in Pasadena, Sostanza Trattoria in West Los Angeles and Chadney’s in Burbank. He said that although what he does might look easy, that’s not the case: Perseverance, in the form of plain hard work, is necessary to maintain the high standard of performance that he sets for himself.
At the Glendale Grill, Clatworthy--nattily dressed in a solid gray double-breasted sports jacket, matching slacks and a black turtleneck sweater--said: “I’m just trying to learn how to play.
“Music is so mysterious. It’s beautiful. It touched me, grabbed me when I was about 10, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to do it ever since. I guess it’s easier for some people to absorb, but I have to practice a lot. There have been years where I’ve practiced six to eight hours a day. Now if I don’t practice three to four hours a day, I’m in trouble. I like it where I work three, four hours a night and practice about the same during the day.
“Being a musician is just like being a plumber. If you choose to be one, you have to treat it like a job. So I don’t practice only when I feel like it, I just practice. Because actually you feel much worse if you don’t practice, even if you didn’t want to.”
Clatworthy’s ardor is fueled by what he sees as a simple goal. “I’m trying to get to the point where I can speak as freely on the saxophone as I can in conversation,” he said.
A smile materialized on his face at regular intervals during the set, particularly after his own solos and while listening to his band mates. Did that indicate that the goal is a little closer at hand? “Some days you feel like you’re good; the next day it’s not so good. It’s day to day, so I never feel safe,” he said.
These days he plays only tenor saxophone--"It’s the instrument on which I feel the most vocal, the most like it’s my voice"--except when he plays flute in a chamber music quartet at the Market City Caffe in Pasadena on Sundays.
The musician, who recognizes the influences of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, says that in his improvisations, he likes to keep a keen sense of balance between being specific, i.e., playing melody notes that go with the underlying harmonic fabric of a song, and being vague, i.e., performing in a freer style where the harmony is all but ignored. In this manner, he said, he can become more and more himself, artistically speaking.
“The people who are the most individual are those who can mix the two, the vague and the specific. They’re the ones with the mature voices, the ones who sound like themselves,” he said, his head resting in the palm of his right hand.
Aiding him in his quest for singularity is Coleman, the pianist who has been part of Clatworthy-led bands for several years and who appears on the sax man’s debut release, “Thanks Horace” (Discovery). She just recorded her first album, which spotlighted Clatworthy, and in 1989 was chosen for the Los Angeles Jazz Society’s Shelly Manne Memorial New Talent Award.
“Cecilia and I, I think, have similar musical ambitions, which are to be honest and accomplished in jazz music, so that’s very helpful,” Clatworthy said. “It’s hard to find people who think the same way you do, so we’re lucky. We’re playing in the same musical wind, not to be flashy but to make the music good.”
And Coleman finds that there’s plenty about the saxophonist’s playing that she likes. “The fact that he’s willing to take chances, that’s he’s an exploratory player looking for new things to say--that’s very inspiring to play behind. It gives you a boost,” she said. “And I like the fact that he lets you do pretty much what you want so you can express yourself musically and grow.”
Coleman and Clatworthy often appear together at Sostanza Trattoria in a trio context, which allows for another variety of jazz experience.
“The trio is simultaneously more free and more limiting,” Clatworthy said. “Without drums, sometimes it’s easier to head in different directions harmonically, and there’s more time to think. The drums, though, add more fire, thus more passion.”
Whether he’s fronting a duo, trio or quartet, Clatworthy never brings written music to the bandstand. “I won’t stand there reading,” he said. “I consider it part of my job, just like wearing a suit, to know the repertoire. So I won’t play any tune that I don’t know. If we have a new tune, I’ll learn it first and then play it.”
Clatworthy termed the jazz life very enjoyable, but said he has to work almost every night to survive. “There’s very little money in this music,” he said somberly.
But he gets a lot of assistance from talent agent Shirley Birnbaum of Shelby Enterprises in West Los Angeles, who for about the past year has secured most of his engagements.
“When I was hustling my own gigs, it was hard, so to have someone do that for me is a blessing,” he said. “And Shirley manages to put me in places where I can play anything I want. Sometimes I can’t play it very loudly, but I try to make it a rule that I play only where I can play what I want. That way I don’t have to play ‘New York, New York,’ ” he added, his face brightening.
Clatworthy’s first instrument was a guitar. At 19--he had moved to London from Hastings when he was 13--he swapped his guitar for an alto sax. “Then a girlfriend’s brother told me I could get more work as a tenor saxophonist, so I got one.” He was soon playing with rock and jazz bands in London.
Arriving in Los Angeles for a vacation in June, 1980, Clatworthy sat in at various clubs. At one, he heard about a top teacher named Phil Sobel. In a serendipitous moment, Clatworthy happened to visit the Dick Grove School of Music, then in Studio City, and met Sobel there. “Phil put me in one of his sax section classes and that’s why I stayed in America,” Clatworthy said.
Eight years of studies with Sobel gave Clatworthy what he needed. “I learned the mechanics of the saxophone, which gave me the freedom to play,” he said. “It was a tremendous foundation and terribly hard work. But without that, I would never have gotten to where I am.”
Sobel agreed about the hard work, calling Clatworthy “a perfect example of the guy who becomes a success about whom you say, ‘You don’t have to have a lot of talent, you just have to work hard.’ ”
By 1981, Clatworthy was appearing regularly with a quartet. In 1985, he spent a year studying modern jazz with Charlie Shoemake, who last spring closed his improvisation studio, where 1,500 musicians had studied, and moved to Cambria, on the Central California coast.
“I’m sorry Charlie’s moved,” Clatworthy said. “He was the only teacher here who could accurately explain the be-bop language.”
Shoemake, who played with George Shearing’s quintet in the ‘70s and whose most recent album, “Stand Up Guys” (CMG) features saxophonist Harold Land, had warm praise for his onetime student. “He plays with a lot of passion, and he’s certainly dedicated toward jazz music in an era when most people aren’t,” Shoemake said.
“He’s had his chances to do things that would have been more lucrative, but he’s stuck with his stuff. That’s noble. He’s someone who’s trying to do something. That used to be the norm, but now it’s the exception.”
Clatworthy doesn’t see any other path for himself than the one he’s on. “I just get up in the morning and practice, learn the next tune, get to the next gig, make the next rehearsal,” he said. “I think it’s good, this life. I feel like it will go well. I’m trying to be honest about the music, and that’s what’s important.”