For Experimental Jazz Group Onyx Collective, the Only Rule Is ‘No Rules’

Posted June 15, 2018 7:03 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The experimental jazz group Onyx Collective has a knack for attracting listeners that don’t frequent traditional jazz sets and collaborators whose approval can move the needle. In February, as three members of the New York band led by 22-year-old saxophonist Isaiah Barr prepared to perform at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side, the audience filled with young people dressed in high-end streetwear, and downtown jazz mainstays Marc Ribot and Roy Nathanson joined onstage on guitar and alto sax.

Before long, Nathanson and Barr’s horns were chasing each other down winding paths. Drummer Jamire Williams alternated between being a perfect metronome to playing offbeat so vigorously he nearly fell off his stool. At the end of the night, the audience rose to its feet slowly, staggered by the sound echoing through the Synagogue’s halls.

Barr started Onyx Collective when he was still a teenager, in 2014, and though its beginnings are rooted in jazz, it has become a fluid union of visual artists, musicians and vocalists. The group can feature as many as a dozen people onstage at a time, but its core includes drummer Austin Williamson, keyboardist Josh Benitez and singer Julian Soto. Its sound is firmly rooted in the New York jazz tradition and includes nods to the bop of Dizzy Gillespie and the moody, modal sounds of John Coltrane, but its live shows are more varied and the group will often shift its vibe based on the collected expertise of the musicians onstage.

Barr’s early goal was to provide a platform for artists to collaborate outside of rules or restrictions, but he also recognized that spaces for artistic expression were becoming scarcer in a city dominated by skyrocketing real estate prices.

“From the beginning, creating a community was always the most important thing to me,” he said in an interview from his studio in Chinatown. “We lost our space in 2017, and we were lucky to find the one we’re in right now. It’s our job to find the cracks in what remains and find a space where we could create.” Barr grew up on the Lower East Side and took the name Onyx Collective from a prewar block of houses in the East Village where his uncle, HIV/AIDS activist David Barr, lived for many years. After being expelled from Millennium High School as a freshman (he declined to say why), Barr attended the Institute for Collaborative Education, a progressive secondary school on East 15th Street. While studying saxophone there he came under the tutelage of Nathanson, a leader in the free jazz scene of the 1970s and ‘80s.

“Isaiah is so heartfelt,” Nathanson said in a phone interview. “There’s something very kind about Onyx Collective’s vibe, too, something very inclusive about it, and it reminds me more of the Lower East Side that I knew in its collective spirit.”

After high school, Barr met Williamson and Benitez in a jazz program at York College in Queens, and both became regular members of Onyx Collective. Just one year later, Onyx Collective picked up a time slot on the Lower East Side community radio station Know-Wave, and used its newfound platform to play improvisational jazz live on-air and bring a rotating cast of musicians into the studio, including Soto and bassist Felix Pastorius. It was through the Know-Wave community that Onyx Collective built relationships with artists like English songwriter, producer and performer Dev Hynes (who records as Blood Orange), New York rappers Wiki and Princess Nokia and soul singer Nick Hakim, all of whom have become collaborators onstage and in the studio.

“They have so many different ensembles of what the group is and so many different aspects of music,” Hakim said in a phone interview. “They’re trying to create this limitless outlet and fighting against being put into a single genre.”

The group’s debut LP, “Lower East Side Suite Part Three,” out Friday, is an album of dizzying, frenetic jazz that follows a vinyl-only live recording and a pair of EPs. Its song titles pay tribute to locations that qualify as New York cultural landmarks to some (Chatham Square, the Bowery, the Ukrainian restaurant Veselka) and Barr said its sense of place is key to its aesthetic. “We wanted to record it in one place, and we wanted a place that had that sacred spirit of downtown,” Barr said. The group chose the Magic Gallery, a studio and artist space on the fifth floor of a walk-up building on Canal Street. “This is a home. It’s not a studio,” he said. “It’s the opposite of stale. It’s this rooted place.” Likewise, the group itself has sprouted roots: Its home base is the “Shed,” a small room on the roof of a Chinatown apartment building in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge that has become something of a clubhouse. The walls are lined with posters of past Onyx Collective shows, and a drum kit with an intimidating cymbal stack is tucked into one corner.

“The Shed is a special place that’s been a safe space and a place in New York that you can make noise and be loud and do whatever you want,” Hakim said, echoing an idea central Barr’s philosophy for the group. “It’s a little world they’ve built.”