In one of the photos on his Instagram account, Isaiah Barr is wearing sunglasses and playing two saxophones simultaneously. A few squares down, the letters O, N, Y, and X have been shaped out of mown grass, with a caption that reads Ladies And Gentleman, I Would Like To Announce Onyx Collective’s Show This Week At Magic Gallery!!. The show they played was an evening of classical jazz.
Chances are if you’ve picked out this interview to read, you’ll have been listening to the collective’s sessions on the art-music online radio station, Know Wave (and if you haven’t, we thoroughly urge you to go find them). Every week, founding members Isaiah, Austin Williamson and Joshua Benitez pool from their tight network of musicians, emcees and visual artists and jam together at the Know Wave store front studio in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The results are old school free jazz which meets the new school New York art scene, running against the grain of what is expected from both sides. On 12th January, the Onyx Collective will be releasing Second Avenue Rundown, their first album; an archive of selected works from the store front sets – cementing their place at the forefront of New York’s perpetually shifting underground.
It’s hard to find any music online that isn’t a radio rip or footage recorded from a gig – there are no MP3 singles to share around, which is pretty unusual for a group with an imminent album release. However, the collective have gained a sizeable following from their live shows. Perhaps because after what feels like a decades-long reign of DJ-producers, you can put Onyx Collective on stage with hip-hop group Ratking and get the charisma of 1990s New York back for the evening.
Jazz is the sweetheart of serious record collectors who understand the weight it carries around with it; along with blues, jazz laid the foundations for the empire that is urban music today. Blood Orange recently posted a picture on his Tumblr of deceased trumpet player Louis Armstrong, with the caption POPS: THE MAN, THE LEGEND, WE OWE IT ALL TO YOU. It is the music for music producers.
Wonderland caught up with frontman Isaiah Barr to chat about vibes, New York City and the infamous store front spot.
So, Isaiah, you’re a native New Yorker. How important is Jazz in New York’s culture, what’s the vibe over there like?
Well, growing up in New York is the best place for a kid who wants to become a jazz musician, the jazz culture is so deeply rooted here. Because New York has been the Mecca of Jazz forever, the city completely embodies the vibe of the music.
It sounds serious.
It’s pretty serious. There’s more jam sessions here than any other place in the world, so the community of musicians is super diverse. There is a place to find jazz in the city every night.
How did you get involved with Know Wave radio, was your show a pretty big catalyst for the album?
Yeah, it was. So, I had been hanging out there playing on Letter Racer’s radio hour with these guys in a band called Ratking. We’d jam to hip-hop instrumentals and I’d play piano and saxophone, it was fun y’know, just a thing I did once in a while. Then I met Aaron Bondaroff [Know Wave’s founder] and he asked me if I wanted to have a jazz show. The doors were open for everyone and there were no rules, so this prompted me to start inviting on all of the talented musicians that I knew and played with. The regulars were Jack Gulielmetti, Austin Williamson, Joshua Benitez, Julian Soto, Malik McLaurine and Paul Johnson.
I also began including special guests who were our mentors; Roy Nathanson, John Benitez, and Dave Glasser all did radio shows with us – we played and then talked about music. This was a weekly thing, so in a couple of months we had a lot of stuff recorded and archived. Me and Aaron both thought it would be a great idea to make a record out of the material from the Know Wave recordings.
Tell us more about the store front. It sounds fun.
The store front was crazy, it was a clubhouse. I went there all the time, not just for my show. I met Dev Hynes [Blood Orange] and jammed out with him for the first time at the store front. The place was always filled with creative people and their guests. There was never the same thing happening twice.
Your album includes over 15 featuring artists. How important is collaboration to the making of your album, each person must bring in something pretty different?
Collaboration is a very essential ingredient because a lot of the music we play is freely improvised. This means that [for the improvisation to work] there is a responsibility that each musician has to have, and that comes with a common trust. Everyone brought in all their unique skills and were very comfortable because the studio felt like our living room. I established a couple methods of conduction and kind of lead the sessions, as well. Sometimes I brought in original compositions, or poetry, and sometimes we would just jam and go for a mood or colour. Sometimes we just played standards.
So, was it all people you already knew?
I knew all the people on the album, yeah, and I brought them all together. Some of us had already played in bands together during high school so the connection was there.
Do you think that there is a big difference in energy from a live show with real instruments compared to electronica… Absolute respect to people who make music with computers, but we saw saxophonist Knoel Scott from Sun Ra the other week and his eyes were rolling back into his head when he played, it was deep.
Yeah, I think there is a certain kind of difference. I think that playing an instrument is a very spiritual and meditative thing, I mean, the breathing process for one is very unique. Jazz is all feeling. Jamming is like a deep conversation and everyone has to listen to each other, which is not always the case in electronic music. There’s a supernatural feeling that one can reach in music that you can’t describe. Sun Ra is definitely a good example of this; their music really goes out and has many different moods and a lot of freedom and expression.
Having said all this, it is very possible to obtain that vibe and feeling with electronic music. I play with a few bands that use this element in a great way and it can really get people going and moving differently.
Are you playing any live dates for the upcoming album release?
Well, we are continuously playing shows all the time at different venues, you know, like pop up galleries and underground spaces and try to stay as active as possible. We’re planning on doing some fun little radio shows too, and always manage to put a live recording up on Know Wave now and again. For the album we are playing in Los Angeles between January 13th – 23rd at a few different spots and planning an album release show in NYC so stay tuned for that!
Visit www.OnyxCollective.com for live dates, videos and more information, or follow them on Instagram: @jazzatthebarr @ajazzcat
Words: Lizzy Nicholson