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February, 2018
Onyx Collective 'Apples', a short film by Matthew Trammell

Onyx Collective are a movement. Not subscribing to a particular formula of what a jazz collective should be, by default they transcend the definition of their name. Based in New York City, Onyx Collective was founded by saxophonist Isaiah Barr and drummer Austin Williamson in 2014. Now with multiple members part of the movement, the Onyx Collective approach is fluid, and can be composed of three, five or even seven members at any given time. They’re guided by one thing: a concise musical mindset, and their dynamic energy is exactly what is needed right now, as their work expresses a new generation’s views and encourages a positive and informed perspective.

Undefinable and exercising their freedom in approach, you can find Onyx Collective playing their own unique take on jazz at the renowned Ronnie Scott‘s in London, or a spontaneous experimental set at New York’s KNOW WAVE radio run by Supreme’s Aaron Bondaroff. For their Boiler Room set in London just recently, their performance crossed and combined genres (rock, jazz, even punk) all the while performed by the band in hand-made original masks. Princess Nokia, Wiki from Ratkin, Nick Hakim (whom recently joined the group on their London tour) and Dev Hynes have all played with the Onyx Collective movement previously, contributing their own unique flavour and sounds. Onyx Collective have released their Fruit Stand, Lower East Suite Part 1 and 2 projects on Big Dada, an imprint on the renowned Ninja Tune label, with 2018 seeing new works in the making. Who knows what to expect from the ever-evolving movement of talented individuals, each striving for the new.

Last year Onyx Collective were invited to perform at the closing of Brian Belott‘s exhibition “Dr. Kid President Jr.” at the Gavin Brown Enterprise in Harlem, New York. Austin and Isaiah performed with several of their own young music students, highlighting the importance of teaching and being taught in a positive and open space. Knowledge is one of the greatest gifts one can give another, as is time and understanding. In ‘Apples’ Austin explains his outlook on teaching and being taught. It truly does form, consciously, one’s way of working. Shaping one’s future output, the right teaching can bring out the best in a talent, creating a cycle of generosity and original works through unedited creative expression. The exhibition “Dr. Kid President Jr.” by Brian Belott presents the collection of psychologist and nursery school director Rhoda Kellogg, who collected more than one million pieces of art made by children living all around the world. Together with other additional student art, Belott showcased his own enthusiasm in children’s art and created an ‘art classroom’in the exhibition where kids from neighbouring schools were able to work with artists such as Eddie Martinez, Chloe Wise and Belott. Also breaking the conventional exhibition format, through his execution Belott brings so much more to his initial concept exploring the uninhibited mind. With the right teaching, incredible potential can be reached. Belott’s exhibition reminds us all about our inner child, naturally expressing themselves with a yearn to learn. Onyx Collective also highlight how much we can all learn from one another, providing room for collaboration in organic ways.

Onyx Collective’s performance at the Gavin Brown Enterprise was captured by film-maker Matthew Trammell in this short film, ‘Apples‘ – premiering here on CHAMP ONLINE. We spoke to Austin and Isaiah to find out more about the ‘Apples’ film and how it came to fruition: how they met Brian Belott, how the film was made, and their own individual approach to teaching.

CHAMP: With Onyx Collective invited to perform at the closing of Brian Belott’s exhibition of children’s art, “Dr. Kid President Jr.”, can you tell us where your relationship with Belott or the Gavin Browne Enterprise began?

Isaiah: Wow! Our relationship with Brian started a long time ago. We met in 2015 at The Moran Bondaroff Gallery in Los Angeles. There was a group show featuring Torey Thornton, Eric N. Mack and Brian Belott. Brian immediately clicked with us over a mutual love for jazz and music in general. We have been collaborating since then. We have jam sessions with him at his studio and have worked with him recently in the Performa Biennial.

What was it that drew you to this exhibition in particular?

Isaiah: I loved the concept of children’s art. I got to see the vast collection that Brian had access of, and that was fascinating as well to see children’s art from all over the world. I think the presentation and the layout was amazing as well. It was amazing to also see little kids making art with Brian. It was a really special thing, felt pretty magical.

With Apples shot entirely at the closing performance of the exhibition, can you tell us about the mood and energy in the space through your improv session with the students?

Isaiah: The vibe was amazing! Super magical. There were art students watching music students and it was just a great community spirit in the room. It was also great to see a bunch of people listening and taking the students performance seriously. It was one of the best performances we’ve ever put together.

Why did you work with Matthew Trammell on this film in particular?

Isaiah: Matthew is a great friend of the band, and an extremely intelligent and insightful person. He came to the gallery show with an old film camera and just shot the whole event. It was a surprise actually, I didn’t even know he was filming the show. So it was a real great thing on Matthew’s part.

Can you tell us why you titled the film Apples? 

Isaiah: Matt Trammell came up with the name for the film. He thought it was a funny play on words for the teacher student relationship.

For the closing of the exhibition, you played with Isaiah and your own music students. When and where did you start teaching music?

Austin: I started teaching music at the Calhoun School for the summer program. There were other great musicians teaching there, and I was also a student there, years before.

You mention in the film, “It’s not really about what you’re playing, or about how good you are, it’s the feeling”. Through that notion or philosophy, how do you incorporate that into your teaching? 

Austin: I incorporate that into my philosophy by allowing the students to explore themselves and explore their instruments freely without any judgment. I knew what it felt like to be kind of contained by a teacher and limited in my imagination. Academia shouldn’t take the place of imagination and creativity. Academia is great but the main thing is that you know really have love and positive feeling.

Through the experience of teaching music to others, what are some of your key lessons you can share through your own experience with other teachers.

Austin: A key lesson I’ve learnt is you have to meet the student where they are and relate. Every person learns differently. To teach effectively it has to be receptive on both ends.


Onyx Collective ‘Apples’, 2017: Filmed and edited By Matthew Trammell


February, 2018