Not all Blue Note sessions are alike—even though label owner-producer Alfred Lion favored a cookie-cutter approach that resulted in hundreds of hard-bop albums carrying a distinctive, muscular sound. Alto saxophonist Jackie McLean's first leadership date for Blue Note was Jackie's Bag—a stand-out album that consisted of two different sessions separated by almost two years. [Pictured above: Jackie McLean]
The first three tracks on the original album were recorded on January 18, 1959 while the second three were recorded for the longer September 1, 1960 session. Two different groups were assembled by McLean for the dates, two different studios were used and two different political climates existed when they were recorded.
On the first session (Quadrangle, Blues Inn and Fidel), the musicians were Donald Byrd (tp), Jackie McLean (as), Sonny Clark (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Philly Joe Jones (d). On the second session (Appointment in Ghana, A Ballad for Doll and Isle of Java), the personnel changed: Blue Mitchell (tp), Jackie McLean (as), Tina Brooks (ts), Kenny Drew (p), Paul Chambers (b) and Art Taylor (d). All of the tracks were by McLean except Isle of Java. [Photo above of Sonny Clark by Francis Wolff]
Why wasn't the first band able to record all of the tracks in one or two sessions? Based on Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, it appears the quintet ran out of time in the first session—with the three songs requiring 3, 8 and 10 takes, respectively. Which doesn't mean much, since even more takes were required for the longer September 1 session, when a total of six songs were recorded. (The additional three were released only recently on CD.) [Pictured above: Jackie McLean]
So why was the first session so short? I did a little digging. It was held at Rudy's on a Sunday, which actually wasn't that unusual for Blue Note dates. Then I checked the weather. It turns out that a snow and ice storm had hit the New York area and temperatures plunged into the teens. My guess is the musicians either arrived late or they had to leave early to get back to the city in one piece.
A little history to put the two sessions in perspective: Fidel Castro had assumed power in Havana just 10 days before the first Jackie's Bag recording date. Though Fidel had been written by McLean earlier, the song's recording in 1959 clearly was a tribute. By 1960, however, Cuba had become a U.S. adversary, making the inclusion of Fidel on an album released in late '60 a rather bold and provocative political statement for the time. [Photo of Donald Byrd in a New York City subway car by Wiliam Claxton]
Another interesting aspect about the album: The first session was held at Rudy Van Gelder's Hackensack, N.J., studio [pictured above] and was among the last dates recorded there. By the spring of 1959, Rudy's new Englewood Cliffs, N.J., studio was completed, and the second half of Jackie's Bag was recorded there. As a result, we have an opportunity to hear both of Rudy's studios on one album.
As an aside, Walter Davis Jr.’s Davis Cup was the first album recorded at Rudy's Englewood Cliffs studio on August 2, 1959. Davis' session also featured Byrd and McLean.
But what makes the two Jackie's Bag sessions especially interesting are the two pianists—Sonny Clark and Kenny Drew. Clark's extended single-line solos (on Blues Inn, for example) are melodic and suspenseful, like the sound of someone hurrying home. Drew's solos are equally beautiful, though lusher and more of an exchange between his left and right hands (on Isle of Java, for instance).
Byrd is blistering on the 1959 date while Mitchell's improvised patterns are rounder and more colorful. And the addition of the red-hot Tina Brooks, who works both the upper and lower registers of his tenor sax here, seems to raise McLean's game on the second session. [Pictured above: Blue Mitchell]
As for McLean, between the two Jackie's Bag sessions, he appeared on several sessions, including Freddie Redd's monumental Music From the Connection and Lee Morgan's groovy Lee-Way. In 1959 and 1960, McLean was on fire.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Jackie McLean's Jackie's Bag
JazzWax clip: Here's Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd on Quadrangle, which is based on I Got Rhythm's chord changes with a spray of Ornette Coleman's influence....