Bassist Charles Mingus had a unique ability to round groups of less than stellar musicians into terrific working units — with as yet unformed instrumentalists in his groups, he could imprint the music with his personal stamp more easily. This was particularly evident in live performance, where Mingus would tinker with each composition, creating an ongoing work-in-progress. As a result, his concert recordings were frequently more rewarding than his studio sessions.
The Complete America Session is a case in point. Aside from Mingus and pianist Jaki Byard, none of the players are themselves distinguished instrumentalists. Still, they manage to make up significantly more than the sum of their parts. I often went to hear this particular group during the early '70s; I can attest to their being a very exciting live band.
Of course, having Charles Mingus's compositions as a vehicle for improvisation helped any player. So did having the hortatory (and daunting) figure of the bassist himself yelling encouragement, imprecations and suggestions while directing the band. And Mingus was an unexcelled group player, molding the music in much the same manner that premiere bassist/bandleader Dave Holland does nowadays.
I'm particularly taken by Mingus'own playing on “Pithecanthropus Erectus.” It's almost superhumanly propulsive, providing soloists with an impenetrable safety net.
Better still is the slower version of “Peggy's Blue Skylight," an Ellington-like theme on which Jaki Byard (a pianist wonderfully well suited to the demands of Mingus'protean music) and tenor saxophonist Bobby Jones play their best solos.
The Complete America Session is a two-album set. The second contains outtakes, false starts and bits of conversation. It's good to hear Charles Mingus's irascible voice again, counting off and stopping tunes, complaining, and — as always — making things happen.