An expandable quartet composed entirely of native New Yorkers is rare, but does that affect their musical product? Does residence matter in today’s tiny connected world? Taking a break from backing such pop near-celebrities as Princess Nokia, Blood Orange, and Wiki, Onyx Collective answer these questions in the positive by creating a mad NYC night out with John Lurie, Charles Mingus, and a straitlaced Albert Ayler as your guides, tongues firmly in cheeks.
There’s no denying Messrs. Isaiah Barr (alto and tenor saxophone), Austin Williamson (drums), Walter Stinson (upright bass), and Spencer Murphy (electric bass) have absorbed the grittiness of New York’s Lower East Side circa 1992. Many of their often brief, through-composed tunes whirl around like street food vendors and congueros vying for space in Tompkins Square Park. The fidelity is lo, the energy East Village carefree.
Enter from the top or the bottom; it’s all gurgling dissonance and lopsided rhythms, a late-night confection of warbling tones, dive-bar atmospheres, and the convoluted essence of some Manhattan past where rents were low and groceries affordable.
Oddly, the group waits until the album’s final song, “FDR Drive,” to reveal its menacingly trippy trademark swing beat, and it’s a delight, like Jackie McLean playing Tilt-a-Whirl with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. Saxophonist Roy Nathanson guests on four tracks, but such nearly danceable ditties as “2AM at Veselka” and the equally compact “Delancey Dilemma” are all Onyx Collective’s deranged show, as humorous as they are catchy.