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There used to be a club on 51st Street and Lexington Avenue owned by a Japanese gentleman who would greet music fans at the door. The club, which closed last week, was called Somethin’ Jazz, and in 2014 it was the place to see Onyx Collective, at the time a fresh-faced ensemble of young musicians making a name for themselves. You could catch the group on a Saturday night or maybe a Wednesday, depending on the month.
Onyx performances were known for being experimental — the group could play an evening of free-form jazz or something soulful laced with soothing vocals, but no one set or lineup was the same. One night they could be a bebop trio, and the next they might blossom into a six-headed funk-soul colossus. With each performance, the group transformed the seemingly conventional space into something new and exciting. The crowds they drew were often an unusual assortment of folks — downtown art types, hip-hop heads from the outer boroughs, hype beasts, straightlaced jazz dudes. In other words, a variety of people not typically found at a jazz spot on the east side of midtown.
“We just do our thing,” says Isaiah Barr, the group’s founder and saxophonist, hanging out in a small practice room before a show. “Sometimes that is me, Austin [Williamson, drums], and Felix Pastorius [bass] playing a set of improvised music, or a trio with Dean Torrey on bass.… It’s not a definable thing.” While Somethin’ Jazz was where Onyx played their first gigs and gained their bearings, it was at a pre-college jazz program in Queens called Blue Notes that the group’s members first met and started sharing their musical ambitions.
“[Blue Notes] brought kids from different areas [of the city] that really wouldn’t be in Queens to play music,” says Williamson. It was at Blue Notes that he met Barr, from Brooklyn, and keyboardist Josh Benitez, from the Bronx, all of whom would become the core members of Onyx Collective.
“I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to go, and was able to meet Isaiah and Josh. We spent many times there mad late, jamming,” says Williamson. From their time at Blue Notes, and the years prior studying and learning music as children, the three have brought their capacity to thrive in a live setting to Onyx’s makeup, adding members, sounds, and ideas as they progress.
“We like to jam, you know?” says Benitez. “Sometimes it’s jazz, and sometimes it’s not. Our music could be whatever you think it is. It’s just gonna happen.”
This openness has allowed the group to take risks and to collaborate with a unique variety of artists and musicians: to seamlessly join forces with soul singer Nick Hakim for his debut album, to jam with Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, to back New York underground hip-hop royalty Princess Nokia and Wiki. Williamson equates this kind of thinking to a “jazz mind-set,” where one is open to improvisation. Where one plays, just to play, and whoever joins in on this pursuit is welcomed.
Released December 1, Onyx Collective’s third album, Lower East Suite Part Two, is a collection of live recordings from a series of shows at the streetwear shop Good Company the group played this summer. “It’s, like, a mastered and mixed iPhone recording,” says Barr. “We had no plans, it’s just an improvisation.”
Lower East Suite Part Two is the second installment of a three-part project. In typical Onyx fashion, each piece is a result of live experimentation, not recorded in any official studio but at unconventional places throughout the city. Barr lays out the philosophy behind the project: “Taking all of our gear to a space to create in a new environment and shift that environment into a conducive place for music, to hang out, to rehearse, to record.” No studios, no high-priced engineers or producers, no rules to hold the music in check.
The first part of the project, Lower East Suite Part One, released on October 27, consisted of recordings from 172 Forsyth, the now-shuttered storefront of the “art-and-music-free-for-all radio station” KNOW-WAVE, where early versions of the group took to the airwaves. The album is a continuation of their debut, Second Avenue Rundown, which dropped last fall via KNOW-WAVE and Supreme; it too was recorded at the KNOW-WAVE space.
Lower East Suite Part Two has a similar essence: It’s straightforward and takes the shape of the space it was created in. It mirrors the chaos and familiarity of a New York City storefront, the passing people and cars.
“We were playing in a store, people walking past, riding bikes, looking right into the window — it’s just very visual,” says Williamson. Tracks like “From Air” capture this: You can hear people talking and having conversations; in the beginning, a man delivers a monologue about air. The tracks are laced together by snippets of city sounds, engineered by producer Mike Swoop. Listening to the album is an experience.
“These recordings that are on the records, we weren’t thinking about recording for a record,” says Barr. “We’re just trying to play music. These [recordings ] are soundscapes and tours of our constant New York move-around.”
On January 12th Onyx Collective will be playing at Bowery Ballroom for Winter Jazz Fest NYC. Roy Nathanson and Nick Hakim will be joining them as special guests.