Benn Clatworthy & John Donaldson

The Spin @ The WheatsheaF, Oxford

The Spin went the extra mile last Thursday, by bringing two exceptional guests to grace the stage with the house band: saxophonist extraordinaire Benn Clatworthy and the brilliant pianist, John Donaldson.

These two have a long history of touring and recording together, both sides of the Atlantic (Benn still resides in California).

This history has given rise to a great musical empathy between the two of them, as witnessed by the won-over Spin crowd: they were playing as a unit from the first tune, despite the fact that Benn had only touched down from his cross-Atlantic flight that very morning, and that this was the first gig of a three-week tour.

From the opener, it was clear that Benn has a sound and an approach to playing the saxophone that is unlike any other: he mixes a personal lyricism that is breathtakingly fragile at times, with a fierce muscularity that would stand up against any hard-bopper’s abilities. This, coupled with a sense of phrasing which is always unpredictable, makes him one of those few players (worldwide) that can be said to really own his own style.

Benn’s partner in crime, John Donaldson also won over the Spin audience with his virtuosic improvisations, developing solos that went, chorus after chorus, to places beyond where the listener might have imagined there was anywhere else to go. John played with a flawless technique throughout the evening.

It would seem that these two guests instilled in the rhythm section a sense of swing that transmitted sheer ‘feel’ from the stage. It was a great pleasure to see Raph Mizraki (bass) back at the club, sounding as assured and supportive as ever. (He was the original ‘house bassist’ and played regularly at The Spin for 20 years). Raph has been working with the drummer of the night – Paul Cavaciuti – for several years in the Oxley – Meier Guitar Project, so they too have a compelling chemistry when playing together.

The repertoire of the evening was a mix of some of Benn’s tunes, with some standards and less-expected pieces. The band opened with an original, ‘The Pursuit’, an easy mid-up swinger that allowed everybody to lock in and for the audience to know that they were in for a great night ahead. Highlights were a beautiful rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s ballad, ‘My Little Brown Book’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

This was magical music throughout. Here’s to this week’s gig delivering another class act!