I’m a sucker for albums that inhabit a very specific geographical location. Albums that, upon listening to, make you “feel” as if you are physically and emotionally there. Albums where the vibe of the music is inseparable from the connection to the city or neighborhood that the artist is inspired by or rooted in (e.g. Burial/South London, DJ Screw/East Houston, Kermit Ruffins/the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans). Unfortunately, in the social media age, where we have access to virtually visit nearly any location in the world, it is easy to lose sight of how effective music alone can be in achieving this goal. Onyx Collective is trying to change that.
Founded in 2014 by saxophonist Isaiah Barr, Onyx Collective got its start at KNOW-WAVE, the art-and-music-free-for-all radio station formerly located on the lower east side of Manhattan and created by artist Aaron Bondaroff. Early on in their career, Barr has made it his mission to paint a musical picture of the real New York City (specifically Manhattan), warts and all. In an early interview, Barr described the sound of the band: “I think it comes across as New York cityscape music. A little bit of dark nights, bright Sunday mornings, crazy Times Square, and a lot of things in between that if you live in New York you might identify with.”
While the above quote is in reference to the band’s debut album, Second Avenue Rundown, it is clear that Barr and Co. extend this theme into both of their 2017 albums: Lower East Suite Part One and Lower East Suite Part Two. While these records are distinctly different in some ways, they both eschew the clean, meticulous production of some crossover artists like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington and present themselves as free-flowing, gritty, rough around the edges jazz.
For a jazz album, the tracks are surprisingly short, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many ways it is extremely refreshing, as it appears the band is favoring more concise ideas and concepts that further play into painting the so called “New York cityscape music” for people that can’t physically experience the sights and sounds of NYC life for themselves. The length of these tracks feel wholly appropriate, acting as little snippets of life from different neighborhoods and locations in Manhattan.
The band goes deeper into this concept by using specific geographical locations in song titles, as we see in tunes like “175 Canal St”, “Market St.”, “East River” and of course, “172 Forsyth St.”, which is the address of the formerly mentioned KNOW-WAVE storefront radio station where Onyx Collective, was not only fully formed, but also where many of the Lower East Suite Part One songs were recorded.
Lower East Suite Part One and Lower East Suite Part Two were released about a month apart, but feel musically cut from the same cloth. Onyx Collective take their influences from various sub-genres of jazz: salsa, avant garde, bebop, hard bop, etc., but also smartly incorporate less traditional sources of material into their songs such as field recordings and spoken word pieces. The band further expands its sound by frequently experimenting with pedals and effects, often drenching drenching their instruments and vocals in delay, reverb, distortion, envelope filter and more.
Lower East Suite Part One is the stronger of the two, but both albums are very forward thinking, interesting records, and it is clear that Onyx Collective know their audience well. This is lo-fi jazz for the Instagram generation. It is jazz that allows you to experience a world miles away from home, without ever having to take off your headphones. In many ways, this style of song structure may be the future of jazz. Either way, these albums are worth your time to experience, whether you are a New York City resident or not.
Onyx Collective’s Lower East Suite Part One and Lower East Suite Part Two
are out now on Big Dada Records.