Jackie McLean: Fidel




Jackie McLean (alto sax)


Jackie's Bag (Blue Note 42303)

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Jackie McLean (alto sax), Donald Byrd (trumpet), Sonny Clark (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums).

Composed by Jackie McLean


Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, January 18, 1959


Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Ten days before 27-year-old Jackie McLean's first Blue Note recording session as a leader, another first-time leader made his own mark, as guerrilla forces commanded by 32-year-old lawyer-turned-rebel Fidel Castro triumphantly entered Havana, consummating their overthrow of Cuba's military dictatorship. During the brutal 7-year reign of General Fulgencio Batista, the tropical island had become the Las Vegas of the Caribbean, home to lavish casinos, mobster Meyer Lansky, widespread corruption, government- censored media, protest demonstrations, general strikes by workers, riots in the streets, police terrorism, and the suspension of such constitutional niceties as free elections. (See The Godfather, Part II for picturesque milieu.) Naturally Castro's ragtag but victorious army was welcomed by jubilant crowds, relieved to be out from under the dictator's iron thumb yet little suspecting what lay ahead.

As charismatic leader of the Cuban Revolution, the scruffy, full-bearded Castro instantly became a folk hero to hemispheric militants from Havana to Harlem, cementing his appeal in the latter community during an eventful September 1960 visit. In town to address the U.N. General Assembly, the Third World's newly anointed apostle of the proletariat—perennially clad in combat fatigues—felt a chill of inhospitality amid the gracious 19th-century brownstones of midtown Manhattan's Shelburne Murray Hill hostelry, and with characteristic antibourgeois panache relocated himself and his retinue to Harlem's storied Hotel Theresa, where he received such solicitous dignitaries as Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, the latter proclaiming his Cuban host the only white person he ever liked. Meanwhile that month the CIA, less in accord with Malcolm's sanguine assessment than with President Eisenhower's denunciation of Castro as an international troublemaker, commissioned Sam Giancana, boss of organized crime's notorious Chicago Outfit, and his Miami counterpart Santos Trafficante to assassinate Castro upon the Bearded One's return home. And speaking of returns, Jackie McLean was again in Van Gelder Studios to complete his album Jackie's Bag. (As we said, it was an eventful month.)

Having grown up in Harlem, where he still resided, McLean must've felt vindicated when his tribute's namesake checked into the Hotel Theresa, presumably confirming McLean's prescience in recognizing Castro as one of history's good guys. In any case, Jackie's tune "Fidel" is exceptionally attractive, and McLean puts his familiar off-kilter intonation to expressive solo use. The overall performance, however, is far from Blue Note's best. In particular, trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Sonny Clark seem out of sorts, justifying producer Alfred Lion's decision to keep this session in the can until more representative McLean albums could be released (to wit New Soil, Swing, Swang, Swingin' and Capuchin Swing).

As for Castro, he went on to outlive Batista, Khrushchev, Eisenhower, Meyer Lansky, Malcolm X, Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante, Alfred Lion, Sonny Clark and even Jackie McLean. Must be something about those fine Habanos cigars.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz

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