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The Abstract Opus of Onyx Collective

Interview

Every few minutes, the train would shriek and bustle over us, forcing whoever was talking to raise their voice—an easy adaptation to the sort of sonic inundation that these musicians thrive off of, because for Isaiah and Austin, sound is an amorphous, elastic thing. Even the ugliest bits of noise can be shaped to their liking.

 

Having found their footing within DIY art spaces and the Lower East Side skater community, the Collective itself is in a constant state of adaptation, a rotating group of musicians who play often-improvisational, experimental jazz and funk. “People are very free when they’re making music with us,” Isaiah tells me, laying on a bench with eyes fixated on the ceiling. “There’s a lot of sharing and communication going on, and in a pretty telepathic way.” Black-and-white portraits of Duke Ellington and Cannonball Adderley are watching over us from the wall, and I can’t help but think that Onyx Collective, with their relentless rule-breaking and improvisation, are making these legends proud by carrying an authentic jazz ethos into the digital age.

 

“We have a bunch of friends who we don’t even have to invite to our shows in the Lower East Side,” Isaiah tells me. “They’ll just roll by coincidentally.” Onyx came up with a strong focus on live performance—until late last year, they hadn’t even made any real songs of theirs available online. When Isaiah got offered a time slot at innovative art and music radio station KNOW-WAVE in 2014, he took it as an opportunity to build on his vision for Onyx, bringing in guests to jam with on air, many of whom would eventually perform with the collective on their live gig circuit.

Within the past two years, Onyx has intermingled and performed with New York’s finest up-and-comers, including Princess Nokia and rapper Wiki. Isaiah laments that the term “jazz” typically elicits a limited vision of traditional music, rather than the dynamic spirit at the genre’s heart. Although the music can sometimes be hard to pin down, the thrill of it all comes from not knowing what you’re going to get, never seeing the same show twice. “Musicians have been dealing with the reality that complete masterpieces have been made years before them,” Austin says, explaining how they keep things fresh. “There are so many ways to deal with that, and that’s a beautiful thing, having that knowledge. Just being open to it.”

 

Creativity flourishes in this openness as well, and Austin describes how effortlessly inspiration can come, from simply being in the space where they’ve cultivated their community. “I feel like the Lower East Side definitely has some of the best natural sounds in the city,” he says, grinning, when I ask his favorite thing about the neighborhood. “You can hear someone arguing on one block, and then you cut a right and you’re in Chinatown, unable to understand what anyone’s saying… You hear a fire engine chasing down the street just honking the fucking horn like crazy because there’s traffic. It’s like a movie.” Onyx’s repertoire serves as the perfect accompaniment for this awe-inspiring cacophony.

“Whenever anything is a hybrid or a variety of different ingredients, it becomes subjective to the listener and subjective to the environment that the listener is hearing it in.”

It carries over to the listener, too. It’s the first snow of the season in New York City, and I decide to queue up some of the band’s songs for my commute to work. On “Color Images,” the phrase, “I get images sometimes / Color images” plays on loop, distorted and glitchy, as I walk past ongoing roadwork now halted and completely submerged in a magical blanket of white. “Fruit Stand,” with its peculiar and conversational horns, switches gears, transporting me to the back room of a 1950’s burlesque club—meanwhile, a frustrated man yells at my train conductor for allegedly skipping his stop. I absorb it all.

 

“Mambo Pancakes” feels like an acid-laced salsa dance, its rushed and rhythmic percussion paving the way for a climax of horns. It plays as I emerge from the train station onto Canal Street where a hoard of tourists and Chinese shopkeepers collide, one group far more enthusiastic about counterfeit designer watches than the other. It’s a compelling, capitalistic friction of cultures innate to NYC, and Onyx Collective’s music frames it in a way that draws out balance and beauty from the chaos.

“Whenever anything is a hybrid or a variety of different ingredients, it becomes subjective to the listener and subjective to the environment that the listener is hearing it in,” Isaiah says, still staring up at the ceiling. Although they are all about improv, Isaiah and Austin answer questions meticulously, almost hypnotizing in their precise choice of words. Both of their faces light up when I compare their music to an abstract art piece.

 

“If I were an artist, I would probably make abstract art,” Austin declares, delighted at the hypothetical. “I think of the drums as a canvas, with its different cymbals and sounds. I’m super nerdy about a certain cymbal that’s going to be on a certain song because it’s just like a brush—if you don’t have the proper brush, that stroke isn’t going to come across in the painting how you want it to.”

Isaiah gets into it, too. “Once you get deeper and deeper into writing music, it allows you to form a concrete or subjective viewpoint on something and turn that into a sculpture,” he observes. “You can either mold a sculpture that follows some sort of narrative, or you can abstract the sculpture and view it from a multi-dimensional perspective, and that becomes the sculpture.” In terms of their own methodology, Isaiah and Austin lean toward the latter.

“You can either mold a sculpture that follows some sort of narrative, or you can abstract the sculpture and view it from a multidimensional perspective, and that becomes the sculpture.”

Austin goes on to share some struggles of doing what they do, specifically in the fast-paced, congested world that is New York. “It can be hard shooting down Allen Street with some fucking drums, and then going to some other venue, but then it’s raining and you have to deal with it.” But the musicians ultimately find solace in the beauty of it all, the fact that they get to build a soundscape every night, putting forth through their music a New York experience that is entirely subjective and personal, yet resonates with meaning across the board, no matter one’s listening habits.

 

“Something I could say we’re focused on, not trying to do, is being ourselves at the heart of it, and kind of like an octopus or something, having all our arms extend and experiment in all these different realms, because why not?” It is a common trope, the young person in a big city, struggling to find a solid sense of community. But Isaiah and Austin accomplished just that, using Onyx to engage in an instinctual game of call-and-response with their environment, insinuating themselves into the symphonic madness of the city, and folding into the abstract opus that surrounds them. — END

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