Friday, January 30, 2015

John Jenkins: The Brief Recording Career of a Forgotten Alto Saxophonist

Saying that the recorded legacy of John Jenkins as a leader is meager seems like a vast understatement. As a matter of fact, besides two sessions cut about two weeks apart in the summer of 1957 and a third one co-led with trumpeter Donald Byrd that same year, Jenkins would never enter a studio as a leader again, quietly disappearing from the jazz scene in the mid 1960s. He did appear as a sideman on several dates by the likes of Jackie McLean, Paul Qunichette, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan, Wilbur Ware, and Teddy Charles, yet never again as a leader. This is undoubtedly regrettable in the light of the quality of the music produced during the two summer sessions that we are discussing today. Jenkins also played alongside jazz giants such as Charles Mingus and Art Pepper, but many of these collaborations went sadly unrecorded, which is another reason why his discography looks so slim. Born in Chicago in 1931, Jenkins began his musical education by playing the clarinet, yet he soon switched to alto saxophone, and in his formative years he was influenced by his friend Jackie McLean (with whom he recorded the album Alto Madness for Prestige also in 1957) as well as by Charlie Parker; hence his preference for bop and hard bop when it came time to lead his own sessions.

The first of these dates took place on July 26, 1957 at Rudy Van Gelder’s famed studio in New Jersey and was released on a Prestige album simply titled Jenkins, Jordan, and Timmons. As the title itself suggests, Jenkins, who plays alto saxophone, is joined by Clifford Jordan on tenor, Bobby Timmons on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Dannie Richmond on drums. It is a wholeheartedly bop session, and a rather brief one at that, yielding five tracks that offer plenty of room for all involved to solo. Jenkins is in fine form, acting as leader from the very beginning of the first track, a Jordan original entitled “Cliff’s Edge,” and he brings in two of his own compositions, “Princess” and “Blue Jay.” These are two excellent mid-tempo vehicles for the kind of improvisation that Jenkins enjoyed, based on swift phrases with enough unexpected notes here and there to keep the listener’s attention. “Soft Talk,” the longest track on the album, is much more fast-paced, and though it is dominated primarily by Jenkins, it does contain a compelling solo by Timmons, and even Ware gets to solo briefly on bass. Jenkins is ably supported by Timmons on “Tenderly,” both the only standard and the only ballad in the set, which stands as a fine example of Jenkins’s gusto when it comes to slow numbers.

Jenkins’s second session as a leader was held just a couple of weeks later, on August 11, at the very same studio. Jenkins is again on alto, and Richmond is again sitting behind the drum kit, but this time Kenny Burrell is on guitar and shares credit in the title of the Blue Note album that was recorded on that day, originally issued as John Jenkins and Kenny Burrell. As we can see, whoever got to decide the titles of albums by Jenkins definitely did not spend too much time pondering over complex options. This is once again a quintet date, with Sonny Clark on piano and Paul Chambers on bass—quite the all-star group, in fact! The disc kicks off with a boppish reading of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” built around the interplay between alto sax and guitar and one of the best examples of Jenkins’s knack for surprising the listener with unexpected notes. As in the previous session, the tune selection only affords a ballad here: in this case, it is Harold Adamson and Burton Lane’s “Everything I Have Is Yours,” usually associated with vocalist Billy Eckstine. As an interpreter of ballads, Jenkins shows that he has taken more than a tip from Charlie Parker: he exudes warmth and feeling, but like Bird, he is not afraid to show his bop leanings even at a slower tempo.

Kenny Burrell and John Jenkins
This time Jenkins contributes three of his own compositions (“Motif,” “Sharon," and "Chalumeau") all of them freshly minted melodies designed to showcase his improvisatory skills, as well as those of Burrell and Clark, who are afforded more space to shine than Chambers and Richmond throughout the set. The final track, “Blues for Two,” is credited to Burrell, and as its title implies, it is based on the blues and provides a more than satisfying way to bring the session to a close. Fortunately, both of these albums are currently available on CD format and should not be too hard to find (the Jenkins-Burrell reissue even includes two bonus tracks from the session, both of them alternate takes of cuts on the original record) and they capture Jenkins, albeit briefly, at the peak of his power, during a short time period when he was extremely active, and a few years before he drifted into obscurity and was never heard from again. In view of these two dates alone, his disappearance, whether self-imposed or not, was undoubtedly a great loss for jazz.

Bobby Timmons plays piano on Jenkins's first session as a leader


Erik Stenvik said...

By chance I happened to hear the John Jenkins - Kenny Burell version of Everything I have is Yours on radio this morning and was very impressed by the alto player sounding almost like Bird. In spite of listening to jazz for more than 50 years I never heard about this guy Jenkins.Your article gave me just the information I wanted and great pictures too!

Erik Stenvik

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Erik,

Thank you so much for your very kind comment. I am very glad you enjoyed my article about John Jenkins and that you found it useful! As you say, Jenkins was influenced by Charlie Parker, and in spite of being a very talented alto player, he never got the recognition he deserved, and in fact, he recorded very little. But what he recorded was always high-quality stuff, particularly the album with Burrell.

Mange takk!

Anton G.-F.
The Vintage Bandstand