by Ian Mann
March 10, 2019
A consistently exciting, and undeniably impressive, album that combines an edgy, urban, contemporary urgency with supreme musicality.
(Gearbox Records GB1550CD)
Tuba player Theon Cross is probably best known to British jazz audiences as a member of Sons Of Kemet, the Mercury nominated quartet led by multi-reed player and composer Shabaka Hutchings. He’s also been part of Brass Mask, the New Orleans inspired ensemble led by saxophonist and composer Tom Challenger and of Seed Ensemble, the ten piece band led by alto saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi.
Cross also leads his own bands and is one of a larger group of London based jazz musicians who have been creating waves on the UK music scene through their participation on the much feted “We Out Here” compilation, released by DJ/producer Gilles Peterson on his Brownswood Recordings label.
Featuring tracks by Cross (“Brockley”) and Hutchings “We Out Here” also includes pieces by drummer Moses Boyd, saxophonist Nubya Garcia, keyboard player Joe Armon Jones and the groups Maisha, Ezra Collective, Triforce and Kokoroko. There has been a real buzz about the musicians in this circle with many individuals and bands enjoying healthy record sales, high profile gigs and mainstream media interest in a manner rarely seen since the ‘jazz boom’ of the late 1980s (Loose Tubes, Jazz Warriors etc.). Indeed there’s a certain continuity here with many of this current crop of exciting new musicians having come through the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme spearheaded by bassist and educator Gary Crosby.
The success of the “We Out Here” project has led to the musicians in its orbit collaborating with their counterparts from Chicago, notably drummer and composer Makaya McCraven, on the ChicagoXLondon Mixtape album “Where We Come From” released on the Chicago based International Anthem label. Cross, Garcia and Armon Jones all feature prominently amongst other musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.
Others with whom Cross has worked include multi-reed player Courtney Pine, American soul artist Jon Batiste and the rappers Kano and Pharoahe Monch. He is also a member of South London’s increasingly influential Steam Down musicians collective, based at the Albany Theatre in Deptford.
Cross released his first recording as a leader in 2015. “Aspirations” was a five track EP featuring the trio of Cross on tuba, Garcia on tenor sax and bass clarinet and Boyd at the drums. The EP was well received and earned Cross nominations for Best Instrumentalist in the Jazz FM Awards of 2016 and 2018 and Best Newcomer in the 2016 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.
For “Fyah” Cross retains the same nucleus with Boyd at the drum kit throughout and with Garcia specialising on tenor sax on six of the album’s eight tracks. For his first full length album Cross also enlists the services of a number of like minded guests with Steam Down founder Wayne Francis (aka Ahnanse) taking over on tenor for a couple of tracks with Artie Zaitz adding electric guitar. Tim Doyle, from the band Maisha, provides percussion on one piece while Theon’s brother, Nathaniel Cross, adds trombone to another.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the music on “Fyah” is highly rhythmic, similar in spirit to that of Sons of Kemet as it mixes elements of jazz, hip hop, grime and electronica with other aspects of African and Caribbean music from Afrobeat to reggae.
The aptly titled “Activate” gets the album off to an exciting and energetic start as Cross’ rumbling tuba bass lines lock in with Boyd’s crisp drum grooves as Garcia’s tenor dances lithely around them, agile, but full blooded and incisive. Cross is scarcely any less nimble on the mighty tuba as he duets with Boyd’s vibrant and highly contemporary rhythms on this Carnival inspired opener.
“Offerings” opens with the sampled sounds of party chatter which forms the backdrop to the deep, loping grooves created by Cross and Boyd as Garcia weaves sinuous sax melodies around them. There’s a Kemet like atmosphere of Afro-Futurism about the music with Cross skilfully manipulating his sound via the subtle use of electronics.
“Radiation” boasts a beguiling stop-start groove underpinned by the leader’s virtuoso tuba bass lines. If Cross was a footballer he’d attract the plaudit “wonderful skills for a big man”, for such is the inventiveness and agility with which he plays the so-called “lugubrious” or “cumbersome” tuba. Boyd deliberately keeps things simple here, all the better for Cross to demonstrate his abilities as he combines with Garcia’s melodic sax motifs. This core trio of Cross, Boyd and Moses is a highly effective unit capable of building a juggernaut like momentum capable of taking jazz back to the dance floor.
“Letting Go” features more tuba pyrotechnics from Cross, but often it’s his work in a rhythmic context that impresses as much as his playing as a soloist. Again his low register rumble combines well with Garcia’s wispy tenor sax melodies and Boyd’s implacable grooves as the piece gradually gathers momentum, before fading once more to close with the sound of Garcia’s unaccompanied sax.
The group is expanded to a quintet for “Candace Of Meroe” with Francis, Zaitz and Doyle added to the line up as Garcia sits out. Boyd’s drums and Doyle’s percussion unite to create a percolating groove enhanced by Zaitz’s chicken scratch guitar and Cross’ extraordinary vocalised tuba lines, sounding almost like an electric bass. There’s a more overtly African influence about this joyously celebratory piece. Francis adds a powerful and incisive tenor solo, followed by Cross on the tuba.
The core trio bring an edgy, restless energy to the grime inspired “Panda City” with its rumbling tuba, taut drumming and earthy tenor augmented by synthesised sounds and beats.
“CIYA” sees the group expanded again with Cross and Boyd joined by Francis, Zaitz and Nathaniel Cross on a Theon composition arranged by Ahnanse and Nathaniel. This slinkily seductive piece has more of a conventional soul jazz feel about it with Francis adopting a softer sound on tenor and combining effectively with Nathaniel’s trombone. Solos come from Francis on tenor, Nathaniel on rounded, warm sounding trombone, Zaitz on subtly distorted guitar and Theon on tuba.
The album concludes with the suitably incendiary “LDN’s Burning” with the core trio in rumbustious form. Cross’ rollicking tuba lines combine with Boyd’s boisterous drum grooves as Garcia delivers captivating sax melody lines that again draw on Kemet style Afro-Futurism. The closing section features an extraordinary dialogue between the leader’s tuba and Boyd’s drums.
“Fyah” is a consistently exciting, and undeniably impressive album, that combines an edgy, urban, contemporary urgency with supreme musicality. The interplay between the core trio of Cross, Boyd and Garcia is exceptional throughout with all of the guest performers also making telling contributions. It’s easy to see why there has been such a buzz about this circle of London raised musicians and anybody who has enjoyed Cross’s contribution to the music of Sons of Kemet will find much to satisfy them here. One suspects that the trio of Cross, Boyd and Garcia also represent a hugely exciting live act. Catch them if you can.blog comments powered by Disqus