Onyx Collective: Loose Joints

© Eleanor Hardwick

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Onyx Collective are shapeshifters. Like the often-improvisational spirit of their music, the band’s line-up changes form with every project. As a sprawling New York City-based jazz collective, Onyx are artists, dancers, musicians, producers and singers, as well as avast universe of collaborators. It’s near-impossible to define who is and who isn’t part of it.

That’s precisely the way they like it. On stage, Onyx Collective perform in masks custom-made by artist Maxwell Deter, constructed from what appears to be plastic bags and other found materials. Brightly painted and elaborately tasselled, the headpieces obscure Onyx’s identity, cloaking the members playing each show. “People can be guests, or they can be in the forefront,” explains Isaiah Barr, the group’s saxophonist, sometime-singer and strategist. He’s responding slightly exasperatedly as I search hopelessly for a comprehensive rundown of the Onyx Collective line-up. “The same guy who can be a guest at one show could be at the front of the stage at another, [there’s a] guy who isn’t even here today,” he says, alluding to the absence of the some of the group’s core members.

We’re sat in a pub in Islington on the hottest day of the year so far. Barr’s thick New York accent strays between rattled and unfazed, and his long hair bounces animatedly under his oversized hat. He’s joined by drummer Austin Williamson and bassist Daryl Johns, his bandmates for this stripped-back presentation of Onyx Collective, who are in the middle of a whirlwind UK tour with jazz titan Kamasi Washington. Like Washington – as well as his collaborators Thundercat and Robert Glasper and, over in the UK, artists such as Shabaka Hutchings, Kamaal Williams and Moses Boyd – Onyx Collective are changing the perception of jazz among young listeners.

Once unfairly maligned as a middle-aged pursuit, the sound of contemporary jazz channels the raw energy of political protest back into the genre. This wave of artists weave threads of hip-hop and UK dance into their styles and – in the case of Onyx Collective – push the limits of its avant-garde potential. Following tonight’s gig at The Roundhouse, an audience gathers for an intimate afterparty at Camden’s Lock Tavern, where Moses Boyd and fellow London musicians are joined by Washington and Onyx Collective members for spontaneous bouts of late night jamming – and the crowd are remarkably fresh-faced.

Onyx Collective captured a youthful spirit with their debut LP Lower East Suite Part Three – which followed two EPs to complete their Lower East Suite trilogy. Their wildest release so far, Part Three is a mix of atmospheric, experimental and occasionally frenzied jazz. “It came about as a result of trying to kind of put an envelope and a package around the weird kind of unorthodox stuff we do in New York,” Barr says of the suite. “So, we started to create a roadmap around downtown of where we were playing through these recordings… It was like ‘OK, we have two parts of it done, let’s write, compose some songs that have a dramatic effect and create an ambience or an environment that’s reflective of the whole neighbourhood, the whole process.’”

“We want to reflect the chaos of old school New York” – Isaiah Barr

Barr and Williamson were born and raised in New York, and the relentless chug of the city informs everything Onyx Collective does. “New York is hectic, and we want to reflect that hecticness and that chaos of old-school New York,” explains Barr. That chaos is most evident in the way Onyx organise themselves, often holding unannounced shows throughout the city’s Lower East Side, performing in art galleries, barbershops and anywhere else that will have them. It’s an approach that has made the collective an integral part of the fabric of New York’s music and arts scene. Along the way, they’ve collaborated with the likes of Dev Hynes and Princess Nokia (who Barr grew up with – she’s regularly spotted wearing the group’s shirts) to acclaimed artists like Lucien Smith, who recently opened an exhibition with hypebeast king Virgil Abloh. In need of an act to soundtrack the opening, the pair immediately asked Onyx Collective.

Thanks to the nebulous nature of Onyx Collective, their sound can change considerably. On record so far, they’ve stuck to a mostly improvised, descriptive form of jazz that paints surreal pictures of their home city. Yet live they often revert to blasts of funk, salsa and even hardcore punk. At one point in our interview, they refuse to answer any more questions until I listen to a pair of trap songs they crafted in their tour van featuring their tour manager on vocals.

“People do cameos, that’s how to think about it – they’re part of the film,” Williamson explains, pausing to sip his pint. “Some parts of it might be three or four people or six people, so it’s always changing – but always to cater to the music.” If Onyx Collective is a film, then it’s one made up of a series of vignettes, with each fragment of the group’s activity coming together to create a bigger picture. It’s how their music works, too. The majority of the tracks on Lower East Suite Part Three are named after streets or spots in the neighbourhood; they’re composed or performed cinematically, centred around a mood or image rather than melody or rhythm.

The flurry of activity around Onyx Collective can make your head spin. But that chaos has been deliberately maintained – Onyx Collective are aiming to disorient. They clearly recognise that it lends the group a vital sense of unpredictability, something that’s dying out in today’s algorithm-dictated music industry. “There are certain things in life that should be kept mysterious and don’t need to be revealed immediately to the media, the press, to anyone,” Barr insists. “The more mystery, the more you have to look forward to. If I just told you everything, would it be exciting?”

Photography: Eleanor Hardwick

Lower East Suite Part Three is out now via Big Dada

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