Tales From the Backyard
Release date: August 13, 2021
Tales From the Backyard is the latest release from English-born and Los Angeles-based saxophonist Benn Clatworthy and his long-standing sextet System 6. A follow-up to 2020’s critically-acclaimed release Bennie’s Lament, Tales From the Backyard allows the listener a glimpse into composer Benn Clatworthy’s lens with music that tells personal tales and makes profound observations of a world in crisis. This album sees an updated iteration of System 6 – multi-reedist Clatworthy is joined by long-time collaborators Ron Stout on trumpet and Joey Sellers on trombone filling out the group’s front-line accompanied by pianist Bryan Velasco. The rhythm section features the new addition of Drummer Tyler Kreutel as well as 19-year-old bass prodigy David Reynoso. Yayo Morales, who filled the drum seat on Bennie’s Lament, co-produced, mixed and mastered this release – and added percussion on various tracks.
Tales From the Backyard portrays a collective of stellar musicians desperate to collaborate and innovate in the face of great strife and upheaval. With the implementation of Covid-19 restrictions in Southern California, this masterful ensemble did whatever it took to stay the musical course, including holding socially-distanced rehearsals in Clatworthy’s backyard throughout the duration of the year. After months of workshopping the substantive material and creating a faultless synergy between the players, Clatworthy decided that it was time to harvest the fruit of their labor. Tales From the Backyard was recorded in its entirety in a single-day session at No Sound Studios in Pasadena, CA on March 9, 2021.
Clatworthy, celebrated for his compositional prowess, penned seven out of the album’s eight tracks, presenting compositions with forward-facing hard bop sensibilities, muscular rhythmic interplay and nuanced melodic invention. These new additions to his pantheon of noted works act as vehicles for Clatworthy’s improvisational acuity which harkens back to the harmonic ethos of late 1950’s John Coltrane with notes of Sonny Rollins and Warne Marsh. Pulling from a diverse array of musical inspirations in composing this music, Clatworthy is driven by what he describes as a “search for beauty.”
From the very first downbeat of Tales From the Backyard it’s clear that this is a hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners ensemble that seamlessly blends virtuosic improvisation with fervent story-telling. Clatworthy takes listeners back to the classic 1960’s Blue Note sound on the album’s opening track “The Vegan”, a composition perhaps designed as a personal calling-card for Clatworthy who indeed is a vegan. A true ensemble piece, “The Vegan” features masterful solos from Stout and Velasco and Clatworthy demonstrates his stunning facility on soprano saxophone.
The album’s second track, “The Studio”, tells a story of loss – the unhurried Latin-tinged piece was composed upon the passing of Clatworthy’s father several years ago. Clatworthy recalls the surreal feeling of sitting and watching the sunrise in his father’s studio in the early morning prior to his funeral. In those moments, this composition came to him.
Clatworthy continues his reflection on years past with two pieces dedicated to important women in his life. “Calypso Trisha” recalls memories of his native London and, in particular, his neighbor Aunty Patty who lives next door to his family home. “This One Is For Celia” strikes a more gentle chord – this tender ballad is dedicated to Clatworthy’s mother in law, Celia Enriquez, whom the bandleader describes as a “wonderful woman”. Clatworthy presents the melody and takes a particularly lyrical solo on flute on this one.
“Ballad For George Floyd” tells the story of George Floyd murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police department. This haunting piece demonstrates the anger, sadness and disdain that the nation felt in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
The frontline shines on “The Mystic Feminine Charms of Caesura Chonchalita”, an Afro-Cuban epic composed by trombonist Joey Sellers. Horn harmonies are accentuated by the tight-knit groove of the steadfast rhythm section. “WAFM”, based on Messiaen’s fourth mode of limited transposition, begins with an insatiable groove from young bass master David Reynoso. Reynoso brings an eager, enthusiastic energy to the group and provides supple, tasteful playing throughout. Clatworthy remarks “he’s going to be a phenomenon.”
The album concludes with Clatworthy’s “The Skipper Meets the Pharoah”, a composition initially commissioned by bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin who recorded it on his album Showers of Blessings. Clatworthy celebrates the great Pharoah Sanders on this bright-tempoed swing piece. Stout and Clatworthy take turns soaring over Velasco’s rhythmic comping before Velasco himself takes off on the changes. Kreutel demonstrates his stunning improvisational chops before the band delves back into the melody. This energetic, inspired piece demonstrates the shear heights of this ensemble, leaving the audience wanting for even more.
Release date: October 2, 2020
Bennie’s Lament is the latest release from London-bred and Los Angeles-based saxophonist Benn Clatworthy and his sextet System 6. Clatworthy, who came to LA to study with woodwind extraordinaire Phil Sobel in the early 1980s, has led various incarnations of System 6 over the past decade, and Bennie’s Lament is the second recording with this particular assemblage of some of SoCal’s finest instrumentalists. The rhythm section of Yayo Morales on drums, Bruce Lett on bass and Bryan Velasco on piano is stout yet nimble, with the motor to swing in double time and the feel for noirish ballads. Clatworthy plays the woodwinds— tenor, and soprano saxophones as well as clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and alto flute—and Ron Stout and Joey Sellers round out a compact but potent brass section on trumpet and trombone, respectively.
Clatworthy’s done most of the writing here, penning nine of the album’s 11 original compositions; Sellers and Morales each get into the box score, too, conceiving a tune apiece. But, refreshingly, no one here is too concerned with their individual stats. The musicians here, like all musicians, suggests Clatworthy, are in search of something more profound. In Clatworthy’s case, he’s driven by what he describes as a “search for beauty.”
The tune that speaks best to this raison d’être is the record’s closer, “The Pursuit.” Clatworthy jumps right in, using his tenor saxophone to issue a strident, almost pleading call into the deep. There’s a playful bit of call-and-response that ensues, with Stout and Sellers sounding brawny yet beautifully layered in answering the leader’s siren call, before Clatworthy steps forward to speak a musical gospel punctuated with revelatory runs of exaltation.
On the other side of Bennie’s Lament is a rich tapestry of an opener called “The Decider,” opening with festive yet hard-charging rumba rhythms before sliding into an elegantly controlled rubato. As the tempo slows, Clatworthy’s soprano sax issues like a stab of brilliant sunlight, and, gradually, out of orchestrated storminess, the tune re-emerges on the other side as a fast swing before ending much the same way as it begins.
Next is “How They Talk,” a tune inspired by the cadence and speech patterns of cable news’ talking heads. Morales’s percussive entrance presents like an unceasing, metronome-like cog in a fully automated assembly line—like the cable news programs, it’s at times there in the foreground, at times there in the background, and like the 24-hour news cycle, it never stops.
But that’s where the similarities end—no hot air or vacuous platitudes here. Instead, the musicians let their instruments do the talking. Sellers, Lett, and Velasco all solo memorably across the track’s straight-ahead middle before Morales shepherds the group back to the evocative dissonances to which the listener was introduced eight minutes prior.
“Terry Briggs,” a noirish ballad with an air of mystery, was written for Clatworthy’s late friend Terry Briggs, a singer known to sing in the style of Johnny Hartman whose jazz club in Santa Barbara was a regular hit for SoCal musicians. While “Pelican Plus One” is a moody, time-alternating reflection on, what else, the predatory habits of pelicans. Have you ever noticed that when a pelican is fishing, he’s usually accompanied by a seagull? Clatworthy has and was inspired to write a tune about it. The body of the tune is written in 9/4, while the bridge is in a double time 4/4 highlighted by Lett’s bouncy walking basslines.
“Two Little Brothers” is a musical portrait of Morales’s two young sons at play, effervescing with curiosity, fearlessness, and an extended drum solo from dad, proving that fun is by no means the exclusive province of the young.
The title track, an homage to John Coltrane’s “Lonnie’s Lament,” a tune Clatworthy had admired and played in clubs for years, serves, appropriately, as the album’s apex. Clatworthy and co. play this tribute in 6/8—that’s how Clatworthy has always played the Coltrane masterpiece— and at a quicker tempo than the inspirational source material, but the shared musical and emotional DNA is unmistakable. Meanwhile, Sellers’s “Good Grape” is a less emotionally fraught proposition; it’s meant to honor red wine. No doubt Bacchus would appreciate a composition so simultaneously rich and smooth, qualities aided in no small measure by Clatworthy’s turn on the bass clarinet here.
“No Collusion,” another Clatworthy original, is an E-flat blues inspired by the current US president and his penchant for prevarication. Looking for someone to believe in, Clatworthy taps Sellers, his trusty trombonist, who’s showcased here soloing through the swinging middle and charging through each restatement of the tune’s theme–no alternative facts here. “Sign of the Times” is another metaphor for our contemporary civic discourse, a fast driver with, in a true sign of the times, no clear tonal center.
The penultimate tune is “In Strayhorn’s Bag.” A tribute to the brilliant composer and arranger Duke Ellington once called “my right arm, left arm, and all the eyes in the back of my head,” it gives pianist Bryan Velasco an earned close-up and Clatworthy a rare and similarly earned opportunity to stretch out on a ballad—rare because there are but a few ballads on this mostly mid-to-uptempo recording but, more importantly, earned because Clatworthy—and all of System 6—are so generous in spreading the love around equitably.
for Tales From the Backyard
MAKING A SCENE
"Tales From the Backyard is every bit the equal of last year’s brilliant Bennie’s Lament. In fact, it may have the edge for its more explorative tones." Full review here.
"Clatworthy, famous for his compositional prowess, wrote seven of the album's eight tracks, featuring compositions with avant-garde hard bop sensibilities, muscular rhythmic interactions and nuanced melodic invention." Read the full review here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
LA JAZZ SCENE
"Needless to say, I was stunned by this depiction of his composition starlette." Read the full review here.
for Bennie's Lament
BEBOP SPOKEN HERE
"If you've spent the past 6 years kicking yourself for not being at the Globe on that memorable evening then this is your chance to make amends!" Read more here.
LA HABITACIÓN DEL JAZZ
"Otro disco interesante de este músico que no es demasiado conocido en España pero que demuestra una gran calidad como instrumentista y compositor." Lea esta reseña aquí.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
"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." Read more here.
THE JAZZ RAG MAGAZINE
"The tenorist, originally strongly influenced by Coltrane, (and who isn't nowadays!) has absorbed Trane's influence, moved on, and found his own voice and vision based on hard bop with splashes of the avant-garde and free jazz thrown in." Read the full review in the Spring 2021 issue of The Jazz Rag Magazine.
"This is a powerhouse jazz album, from top to bottom, led by saxophonist-clarinetist-flutist Benn Clatworthy and five other musicians from Southern California who make up the System 6 sextet." Review here.