With Fyah, Theon Cross cements his sound, inseparable from the London milieu that resonates between the notes. Speaking with Qwest, he talks about the factors that drive him, the versatility of the tuba and next steps.
Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label released the We Out Here compilation in February 2018. It was designed to be a “primer on London’s bright-burning young jazz scene,” with the fox on the album’s artwork signalling its underground nature.
With it came a series of revelations for the uninitiated, not least that jazz is gaining traction with the younger generations, but also that London has made a strong claim to be its engine going forward. Three of the artists shovelling in coal at the helm are Moses Boyd, whose skittering intricacy on drums never fails to take the listener somewhere new; Nubya Garcia with her pure expressiveness on the sax and bandleader Theon Cross, whose rumbling tuba leads the charge on his new album.
If Cross’ tuba still feels unexpected, then it won’t for much longer. By now, he’s gotten used to employing his energy and versatility to shatter expectations, remembering how he learnt to stamp out “the occasional snigger early in his career” through a jagged attack on the beat.
Since a neglect of the tuba in jazz, along with other Dixieland mainstays, we have come to see the instrument in a different light: that of a tuba player sat down, puffing their cheeks amongst a sea of bow ties. Cross has grown to enjoy his opposition to this image: “I love the fact that people don’t know what to expect – I thrive off that.” Whether it’s at the notorious Steamdown improv sessions or as part of the lauded Sons of Kemet, Cross blows away the cobwebs of connotation in real time, rendering himself free from expectation in the process.
But aside from its propulsive, warbling power, it’s Cross’ free-flowing flexibility that sustains your attention. With his instrument, he has the capacity “to sound percussive, melodic, bass driven,” he can even beatbox through it or sing into it like a didgeridoo. When asked if he always sensed this versatility, Cross spoke of playing with the far-reaching Kinetica Bloko youth group as a source of inspiration: “we started playing Sun Ra, Fela Kuti … and because it was a marching band, we didn’t have a bass. I started doing the bass parts and I fell in love with the tuba in that roll.”
It’s a story that sounds like London. With the Afrobeat and wider West African influences of Kokoroko, Maisha and Ezra Collective, the Caribbean inflections of Sons of Kemet and the general tendency towards cross-pollinated musical accents, the London jazz scene is both a product and a proponent of the multiculturalism that makes the city so vibrant. These artists are reaching back into their individual and shared heritage and absorbing what they find before turning around to charge forward with pride and flair.
On “The Offerings,” Cross applies a background of field recordings, some of which he personally sourced when visiting his grandmother’s native Caribbean island, St. Lucia. He remembers growing up listening to music from the French-speaking country, whether it was calypso, zouk or soca, and immediately connecting with its ambience when visiting as an adult. Through a sonic underlay of animal and traffic sounds, voices and bicycle bells, the track offers a sound bite of something much larger – a kind of harvested nostalgia that mingles with Garcia’s resolutely modern crystalline clarity and Cross’ plodding low-end honks. On the process, Cross remarked: “That is what the album is. It’s about putting as much of me as I can in the tracks.”
But Fyah goes beyond recent memory and into more abstract ideas about identity, too. “Panda Village” is so named because, tongue-in-cheekly, pandas are “black, white and Asian.” But the image conjured by “Candace of Meroe” is more striking. It recalls an ancient queen of the Ethiopia – a country that has been famously resistant to European colonization – and the legend of when she stopped Alexander the Great whilst riding an elephant into battle. The track itself makes use of Moses’ quick, light-footed skittering as Garcia and Cross jointly take the reins, driving the melody forward. Cross hints at the popular soca standard called “Dollar Wine,” and at one point makes the tuba squawk like an elephant trudging its way through genre boundaries and clearing out your sinuses as it goes.
It’s through acts like this that London jazz sounds homegrown, despite drawing influence from so many foreign areas. Here, it seems less about the reclamation of something and more about a proud declamation: We Out Here.
Cross also draws inspiration from another homegrown sound, grime: “Thematically, the sound of London for me is always grime … and the tuba is the closest acoustic instrument to that.” If you are wondering where exactly the link is drawn, the answer is both abstract and concrete …
Concrete in that musically, Cross’ tuba playing often emulates the oscillating synth sounds, the harshness, the stomping rhythmic spirit and the low-slung bass lines that you might hear in Wiley, Skepta, JME and many others. In abstract terms though, Fyah echoes some of grime’s attitude, demonstrating the same bold and boisterous affirmation of identity. Between the licks in certain sections, you can almost hear the makings of a two-step beat there, one that would shift from “free form to song form” should Cross work with grime MC’s in the future (a very likely prospect).
As listeners, we can sense this, and the way we approach it changes in turn – challenging some of the traditional ideas of what a jazz atmosphere involves. We are being confronted with something that is less ‘table service’ or purple-tinged mood lighting and more reminiscent of bouncing crowds, infectious smiles and sweat on the walls.
The album’s final track, “LDN’s Burning,” brings the heat to a close among quivering, flickering and crackling bursts from both Cross and Garcia. It completes what Fyah set out to do: to spread a message of warmth and light and to further the cause of a bright new British jazz generation.
Theon Cross – Fyah (Gearbox)