Of the two new Charles Mingus reissues, the Uptown collection of his recordings from the '40s is the keeper, at least in archival terms. The Rhino record is an astute précis of Mingus's work for the label that gave him his first high profile, but West Coast 1945-49 collects the great jazz bassist-composer's earliest recordings, made in California for five independent labels. Its 24 tracks were culled from rare 78s and original metal masters, and while the oldest aren't as clear as digitally accustomed ears might like, the music is fascinating. The Very Best takes material from Rhino/Atlantic's 1997 five-CD Charles Mingus: The Complete Atlantic Recordings box and includes some of Mingus's best-known and earthiest tunes, including the noirish "Pithecanthropus Erectus," the jaunty, indelible "Moanin'," and the Southern Baptist bebop "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting." Mingus's volcanic temperament, which made him a demanding bandleader and a difficult collaborator, is memorably depicted in "Passions of a Man," a track more therapeutic than listenable.
Mingus's development from jump bluesman to full-fledged jazz auteur is chronicled on West Coast, as tracks such as "The Texas Hop," "Ain't Jivin' Blues," and "Honey, Take a Chance With Me" evoke the street-savvy style of Central Avenue, the Los Angeles thoroughfare that paralleled New York's 52nd Street in the late '40s and early '50s. "Pipe Dream," the feisty "Lyon's Roar," "Boppin' in Boston," and the fascinating "Rehearsal Fragment for 'He's Gone'" point to the genre-scrambling, multivoiced style Mingus later refined in his work for Atlantic, Columbia, and various minor labels. Buddy Collette, Henry Coker, Lucky Thompson, Eric Dolphy, Russ Freeman, Lester Young's brother, Lee, and the mysterious Helen Carr all make appearances on West Coast, but the star is Mingus's music, uncategorizable for all time.