New York-based jazz group Onyx Collective have certainly found ample inspiration in their hometown over the past two years. Having released two EPs last year as part of their Lower East Suite and now completing it with their third, the collective has crafted a sonic identity from the improvised distillation of their urban surroundings.
The first two EPs lead to a raft of guest appearances in live shows, from guitarist Nick Hakim to producer Blood Orange and rapper Princess Nokia, while the compositions themselves were entirely improvised, resulting in tracks that veered from balladic melody to bleary distortion, rapid bebop, and the punk aesthetic. For the third part of the Lower East Suite, however, the collective reverts to its core five-piece arrangement and each track has been written and composed by bandleader and saxophonist Isaiah Barr. The result is a record that feels as cohesive as it is experimental.
Opening with the guttural moans of Barr’s saxophone on ‘Onyx Court’ and the languorous development of loose melody, the collective nod to the likes of Pharoah Sanders and the free jazz tradition. In fact, much of Lower East Suite Part Three is traditional. Traditional in the sense that it coheres to the jazz tradition, far more so than the abrasive energy of the previous two releases. On ‘Don’t Get Caught Under The Manhattan Bridge’, for instance, there is the feel of Yusef Lateef through its jaunty rhythms and plaintive melody, while on ‘2AM at Veselka’ and ‘Eviction Notice’ Barr channels a late John Coltrane with piercing saxophone runs.
Yet, rather than present pastiche, Onyx Collective put their own spin on tradition, pushing stylistic nods to their extremes as compositions constantly seem on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. As evinced by titles such as ‘Eviction Notice’, ‘There Goes The Neighbourhood’, and ‘Battle of the Bowery’, the record is a comment on the gentrification of the collective’s beloved New York City, and as such an ominous tone of appropriation seeps throughout. Barr’s freewheeling saxophone is consistently present, lending an austere edge to the swing rhythms of numbers like ‘Magic Gallery’ or aggressively marking out melody on ‘FDR Drive’.
Ultimately, as much as Lower East Suite Part Three is a challenging listen, it is also deeply rewarding in its explorations of jazz history and the ways in which Barr and his collective update and skew the emotive core of such tradition.