[8 December 2010]
PopMatters PopLocal Features Editor
Musical movements from rare groove to lo-fi have made a criterion of sorts out of obscurity. Record collectors foster the impulse, and most music lovers, regardless of their “brow” (high-brow, low-brow, no-brow) can understand the allure of a rare or forgotten gem. The new two-disc set Commitment: the Complete Recordings will have to prevail on such a viewpoint to catch most buyers’ eyes. The band in question, Commitment, was active for under a decade and made only three recordings: an LP recorded in 1981, an unreleased LP recorded in 1984, and a live set played in Germany at the Moers Jazz Festival in 1983, released for the first time on this compilation. These recordings do not play like pivotal keys to the understanding of an epoch, or long-lost masterpieces that reveal a new and startling dimension of the jazz tradition. Rather, this compilation is a pleasure to be pursued for its own sake, a mere snapshot, however vivid, of talented men pursuing their specific musical vision.
Commitment was a quartet, based in the Lower East Side of New York, unique for its mix of Asian, Asian American and African American members. They played an intercultural brand of the free jazz that was at that time coming of age under the sure guidance of men like Cecil Taylor in the the open, collaborative atmosphere of the loft era. The band was founded when William Parker, a reed player, met the young violinist Jason Hao Kwang. Parker soon became a kind of mentor, nurturing in the younger man a desire for self-expression and self-exploration precipitated by his involvement with the Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts organization. Commitment was born out of a community preoccupied with social identity and cooperative growth, and what little remains of their meager legacy bears the marks of those circumstances. On the back of the Commitment LP, there was a poem which included the lines: “When we, as a family of musicians, play / and you, who listen openly, meet / we will explore the face of soul—it’s the tradition.”
The group’s trademark sound was a seamless if chaotic form of group improvisation dominated by Kwang’s expressive, skittering strings and Zen Matsuura’s methodical, ambient drums. There is a spiritual, pictorial aspect to Commitment’s songs which is magnified quite a bit by titles like “Mountain Song”, “Grassy Hills, the Sun” and “Ocean”. One of the most impressive tracks on the album is “Famine” (from the LP), an eerie, beautiful piece which opens with an interchange between Kwang’s wavering violin and Will Connell’s sure-footed sawed bass. The percussion starts hesitantly but gathers momentum until all four musicians are contributing, each playing with the same simple figures in separate but responsive ways. They slowly diverge with more and more urgency until a nearly frantic alarm sounds out, not unlike the music that accompanies each encounter with the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Finally, nothing is left but a plaintively plucked violin and the song ends.
There is certainly a unity to Commitment’s playing that befits the band’s name, especially on the tracks recorded in a studio. The seriousness that comes with such a codependent approach is a bit oppressive. One wonders, if they were all just listening to each other, what were they really playing? The flip side is that there are clearly no weak links in the lineup. Each member holds his own in the collective and each has standout moments. The live cuts lighten the mood a little and show Commitment letting loose. “Ocean”, for example, has a definite groove and some soulful improvising from Parker’s flute. “Diary for One Night” is a multifaceted and very personal workout with a schizophrenic pulse and chattering, anxious solos in the upper registers. There’s no doubt that the players’ personalities are strong; however, they may be subordinated to the group’s dynamics.
The compilation is issued by No Business, a tiny and unlikely Lithuanian label that has been putting out some reissues and contemporary releases amazing for their individuality, quality, and obscurity. It comes with extensive liner notes, a miniature history of the band complete with photos and original track lists. The album is worth buying for anyone with a passion for avant garde jazz, or anyone looking for something new and engaging to hear; Commitment: the Complete Recordings may not exactly be a forgotten gem or an earth-shattering epiphany, but it’s a precious gift at the very least, a reminder that music can come from anyone, anywhere, and probably should.