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Onyx Collective - Lower East Suite Part Three Music Album Reviews

Onyx Collective - Lower East Suite Part Three Music Album Reviews
The finale of the New York jazz ensemble’s Lower East Suite trilogy marks a shift in tone and finds the band newly focused.

Over the last couple of years, Onyx Collective have been playing a game of connect-the-dots across New York. The amorphous jazz ensemble is led primarily by the twentysomething saxophonist Isaiah Barr and drummer Austin Williamson, and in varying lineups they play DIY shows, rap concerts, jazz showcases, and funk jams. Throughout it all, they’ve become known for their itching curiosity, radical eagerness, and unconventional methods.

Last year, Onyx Collective released a pair of EPs captured on an iPhone at gigs and practice spaces around Manhattan. The recordings’ immediacy was evocative, even though both the compositions and sound quality were rough around the edges. Still, the tactic captured a band excitingly on the move. On Lower East Suite Part One they jammed dense hard bop and salsa on the same tracklist. The series finale, Lower East Suite Part Three, is a determined change of pace and length, and the band sounds suddenly contained and focused.

On the prequel EPs the band engaged with New York in documentary fashion, capsulizing their roaming performances with song titles like “172 Forsyth St.” and “Market St.” This time they begin fleshing out the narrative with commentary: “Battle of the Bowery,” “There Goes the Neighborhood,” “Eviction Notice.” Onyx Collective are still closely tuned to the buzz of the Lower East Side, but they’re conjuring and considering it abstractly instead of plugging directly into its hum. “The record is born out of the challenges of being in New York,” Barr has said. In many ways Lower East Suite Part Three is the sound of the musicians digging their heels in to pivot.

For one thing, Part Three sounds much better. The songs are more linear and of a piece: dank bop compositions that often gnarl up in the middle and leave no room for extended solos. The pace and form of their songs no longer springs from jams, and there’s new tension and spacing to show for it. On “Rumble in Chatham Square” Barr’s tenor sax and Walter Stinson’s bass tiptoe along in cinematic staccato, Williamson tumbling behind them with flourishes and splashing accents. About halfway in, Barr staggers one way and Stinson the other, abruptly falling out of unison in a syncopated gait, as if to convey the namesake square in Chinatown, where a bunch of large streets jut into each other awkwardly and then resolve the intersection.

“There Goes the Neighborhood” is a sleazy detective soundtrack. Barr’s sax swoops around in long, drunken strides, Stinson’s bass holding tight to stretch things back and together. There’s a playfulness to Barr’s horn throughout, but the album is foreboding and dense as a whole. “Magic Gallery” sounds a little cautious and precarious, but it’s one of the few places on the record where the band opens up space for Barr to swing gracefully instead of getting cornered.

One of the highlights of Lower East Suite Part Three is the appearance of saxophonist Roy Nathanson, who, in his sixties, could be an Onyx Collective dad. Just a few years ago, Nathanson, an accomplished bandleader, composer, and session player himself, was Barr’s high-school teacher and an early musical mentor. On “Eviction Notice” you can hear him play the part of the tenant, trading blows with his apprentice—screaming frantic, squiggly squeals on his way out the door while Barr bellows out landlord-like groans underneath. It’s the most obvious set piece on the record, a passionate shouting match and existential crisis that ends with dramatic, raucous discord.

A little over a decade ago, an interviewer asked Nathanson, a Brooklynite who in the early 1980s wrote a song called “Spirits of Flatbush,” if he could have found his artistic voice anywhere else in the United States. “No,” he said, noting how deeply the era’s East Village scene was grounded in a sense of place. “It wasn’t like I just visited New York, my roots were so Brooklyn.” On a song like “Eviction Notice” you can hear how much things have changed, as Onyx Collective grapple with how to belong to a city they’re from, but won’t get to inherit.

Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that this was a studio recording; the album was recorded at a gallery.

View the original article here


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