Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Marv Jenkins at the Rubaiyat Room “Good Little Man”

Here is a long forgotten piano-trio treasure that mixes the soulful jazz piano of Oscar Peterson and Ramsey Lewis with the gospel/popular stylings of Gene Harris or Les McCann. The third of four albums known to be issued by pianist Marv Jenkins is this fine record that goes under both titles Good Little Man and Marv Jenkins at the Rubaiyat Room.

Marvin Lee Jenkins was born on December 8, 1932, in Aultman, Ohio. His mother played piano and his brother, Obie, led bands in Canton, Ohio. Marvin, who was also known as Marv, studied music from the age of ten and while he specialized in piano, he also played organ, clarinet and notably flute.

Jenkins played in his brother’s band (1946-54) and the Army band (1954-56) before relocating to the West Coast where he won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival award with the LA State College Quintet in 1959. This led to gigs with guitarist Barney Kessel, where he was featured on piano and flute in performance and on record between 1959 and 1961.

The pianist taught privately during this time and debuted with his own record, Marv Jenkins Arrives (Orovox, 1960), a piano-trio record issued on CD – and probably now long out of print - in the 90s by the Spanish Fresh Sound label. Another trio record, A Tribute To My People (Reprise, 1961) followed on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, followed by Good Little Man (Reprise, 1963).

Shortly after, Jenkins waxed the all-star Big City (Palomar, 1965), featuring such West Coast lights as Carmell Jones, Buddy Collette, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Kynard (who later covered the album's title song under his own name) and Ray Crawford. While Marv Jenkins went onto play and tour with singer Della Reese, little, if anything, was heard from Jenkins thereafter until he appeared on Marvin Gaye’s landmark Let’s Get It On (Tamla, 1973).

Arthritis forced him to retire from music in the 1980s and take up teaching permanently, but several hardships such as the loss of his son, Marvin, Jr., and his wife of 25 years, Anne Heywood-Jenkins, continued to afflict his life. Up until his retirement in 2002, he’d worked steadily as an accompanist to the Baldwin Hills Baptist Choir. Then, finally, Marvin Jenkins died on March 4, 2005, at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena, California. He was 72. He died of natural causes, according to his family, most of whom still resided in Ohio.

On Good Little Man, Marv Jenkins is assisted by bassist Stanley Gilbert (who went on to play with Les McCann, Vince Guaraldi, Cal Tjader, Kenny Burrell, Gerald Wilson and Hubert Laws) and drummer Kenny Dennis (Sonny Stitt, Johnny Griffin and his one-time wife, Nancy Wilson). The trio does an immaculate job on a too-short program of Jenkins originals (“Blues Cha Cha,” “Trane’s Message,” ‘Blues Message” and the superb cooker “Good Lil’ Man”) and jazz standards (“Time After Time,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “What’s New” and the lovely Ray Charles tribute of “I’ll Drown In My Own Tears”).

The originals are little more than basic blues, with tantalizing and uniquely understated flourishes that indicate Jenkins was a man of ideas that might not have squared with the record industry of the day. Like Bobby Scott, Patti Bown or any number of other talented and interesting jazz pianists of the day, Jenkins didn’t seem to have the overwhelming panache or overstatement that would lead to his being a piano jazz star. Thank god.

But there’s something magical and personal about his playing that certainly raises the music well above the cocktail-lounge pianisms of so many others of the time – including much of the music emanating from the Argo, Columbia, Sue or Blue Note hit-attempt factories that produced countless recordings from, respectively, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Roy Meriwether, Ray Bryant or The Three Sounds.

The album’s shining moment comes at the very end, with the gospel marcher, “Good Lil’ Man,” which I first heard on a sampler called Portraits in Jazz: The Sounds of ‘63 (Reprise, 1963). It was about 1986 and this was definitely something that caught my attention then. Every time I hear it now, it renews and reawakens in me the spirit of what jazz piano can accomplish – and what a good player can do in his own right.

The pianist himself is said to have counted the Marv Jenkins at the Rubaiyat Room album Good Little Man as his personal favorite. And it’s not hard to hear why – even if, like me, you haven’t heard the others. There is something special in the scandalously brief 32 minutes of this album’s wonderful playing time. It’s pleasant and provocative all at once, but never so much in either direction to make it easy to ignore.

Perhaps the good folks at Collectables or Wounded Bird might one day consider pairing this album with, at least, A Tribute To My People to share the magic of pianist Marv Jenkins with a world who probably wouldn’t even know the guy outside of Let’s Get It On.

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