The album Lower East Suite Part Three completes a trilogy chronicling the gentrification of New York’s Lower East Side. Founded by Isaiah Barr, this young group ties the New York jazz scene together, from free-jazz adventurousness to the rhythmic loops of the new esthetics.
At the beginning of the year in New York, Onyx Collective was on the program at the Bowery Ballroom, on the same set, notably, as Lakecia Benjamin and Marc Ribot, as part of the Winter Jazzfest. The group was playing on their home turf, having established their basecamp a few blocks away from the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Onstage, the Onyx nebula was reduced to its nucleus, composed of saxophonist Isaiah Barr and drummer Austin Williamson, rounded out by bassist Walter Stinson. They were also joined by jazz mainstay Roy Nathanson, who is something of a mentor to his colleagues: at 67, the saxophonist—a member of the Lounge Lizards and founder of Jazz Passengers—is a full four decades older than most of the members of the collective. The concert, itself, seemed to tie together several generations of New York jazz, from free-jazz adventurousness to the rhythmic loops of the new esthetics, before an audience that was diverse in its makeup, but unanimous in its enthusiasm.
New York, from experimental jazz to Princess Nokia
This same ensemble (Barr, Williamson, Stinson, Nathanson and bassist Spencer Murphy) was found on Lower East Suite Part Three. In the end, it’s this relative stability that makes it possible to define Onyx Collective, which since its creation in 2014 by Barr, then still in his late teens, has systematically blurred the lines: erratic groupings drawn from twenty or so musicians, singers and rappers, intercultural experimentation, community concepts, DIY, concerts at a hair salon or a streetwear store, culture skate, collaborations with Dev Hynes and Princess Nokia, interests ranging from hard bop to hip hop to hardcore punk… Brilliant youngsters, trained in NYC schools (Barr was one of Nathanson’s high school students), but eluding any sort of classification, swarming the Downtown jazz scene, breathing new life into the stuffy clubs. But this album, which completes a trilogy (two EPs were released in late 2017 on the Big Dada label), also marks the end of the re-creation. Lower East Suite Part Three documents the metamorphosis of the Lower East Side, a longtime working-class neighborhood—and potential deathtrap—at the south end of Manhattan, where rents have skyrocketed to the beat of vegan restaurant and designer boutique openings. Onyx Collective was forced to leave their Canal Street digs and relocate to Market Street on the border of Chinatown. This event served as a source of inspiration for such titles as Eviction Notice, Battle of the Bowery and There Goes the Neighborhood. Barr laments the fact that New York is changing as a result of gentrification. But he affirms that the New York state of mind is still there and that the city’s cultural richness will never die. He calls it the epicenter of Onyx Collective and says that they wouldn’t exist without it. Sitting in his little cubbyhole on a Chinatown rooftop, surrounded by art and music from all over the world is what makes him happy.
After the two EPs—a mishmash of jam sessions mostly recorded on an iPhone in an incongruous series of places—reflected the dissolute functioning of the collective, Lower East Suite Part Three adopts a more rigorous structure in terms of both the compositions and the interpretations, but without losing their rough edges: furious exchanges between the saxophones, rhythmic abstractions and traces of swing, live recording, etc. Music that, in the end, is perhaps less novel than the intentions of the group that, now on the radar of hype (the album sleeve even features artwork by filmmaker Julian Schnabel), shows a hell of a lot of potential. So much that they’ll epitomize the vitality of New York jazz for several years to come? Not impossible… unless they decide to go in a completely different direction. Barr is quick to point out that jazz isn’t their only driving force. While it was their first inspiration and a form they love, it’s also what steers them toward other genres. To them, music is an inexhaustible resource—a day without end—regardless of the inspiration. In their case, the things they love to think about when they create include sound, spirit, personalities, humor, imagination, improvisation, mystery, history, stories… As Barr puts it, he’s inhabited by many different influences that aren’t directly linked to jazz—from cinema to the visual arts and poetry. He thinks and works in a number of styles and media, each of which requires a lot of research and concentration. And with such big ideas, who knows where Onyx Collective might lead us?
Photographer: Maxwell Deter
Onyx Collective, Lower East Suite Part Three (Big Dada / [PIAS])
25th August, Rock en Seine, Saint-Cloud, France