If Onyx Collective, the nebulous jazz ensemble whose name you may have overheard in downtown Manhattan at some point in the past couple years, seems elusive it is because often-times they are. Onyx shows are unannounced, impromptu affairs: the group will perform in a basement, at a cocktail lounge atop a hotel, and to the street from a storefront all in the course of a week. The cast of performers is interchangeable, as is the kind of music that they play. Salsa and funk are fair game, in addition to the band's own unique style of jazz.
Onyx Collective is a steadfast part of New York, and the city is the glue that holds the group together. "New York's role in Onyx Collective is everything," explains Isaiah Barr, saxophonist, sometimes vocalist, and de facto leader of the band. "The names of people, the places, the street corners here are so legendary and historically prominent - it leaves a roadmap that we can walk through and a story for us to follow."
Barr is joined by Austin Williamson on drums, Joshua Benitez on keyboard, Jack Guliemetti on guitar, Felix Pastorius, Daryl Johns, and Spencer Murphy on electric bass, and Dean Torrey and Walter Stinson on upright bass, with Maxwell Deter providing most of Onyx Collective's visual art. There is an additional group of artists who consistently orbit in and out of the Onyx universe. Nick Hakim, Julian Soto, Dev Hynes, Wiki, and other New York mainstays have performed with the band, and Onyx quietly features on a bevy of other artists' records.
Onyx Collective's enigmatic nature is undeniably a part of its allure, but the force that truly propels the group is technical musical proficiency (the band's members attended New York's musical conservatories as kids) coupled with a reckless abandon. Onyx runs a manic energy through their classical training to create a live show that at times feels as punk as it does jazz. Barr is known to wield two saxophones simultaneously, playing both over Williamson's feverish drumming.
In September of 2016, with little fanfare, Onyx Collective released its debut album Second Ave Rundown via Supreme. The vinyl sold out almost immediately, and the project cannot be found online - if listeners wanted to hear the group they had to track them down in New York. A little over a year after Second Ave Rundown, Onyx Collective is prepared to make its official debut beyond the city through a series of releases titled Lower East Suite. Consisting of two EPs and an LP, the recordings found on the projects are predominantly taken from live performances the band played across the city, capturing a diverse array of atmospheres and moments from New York. All three releases will arrive via Big Dada.
"There's something about where we play that makes it an Onyx Collective show," says Barr. "Not who we play to, that's not what drives it. It's where we play." Onyx Collective needs the city - the group could not exist without it. And at a time when New York seems more plagued than ever, it is apparent that the city needs Onyx Collective. "Our role in New York is to tell its story," concludes Barr. "In a way that is accrediting and paying homage to those before us, and to then add to what they've done."
“Onyx Collective sound like a group in motion, seeping into and out of spaces, self-leveling into place each time.” – Pitchfork