London’s Jazz Scene Is Burning: Theon Cross’s Fyah

Reviewed by Henry Cherry

Theon Cross’s new album, Fyah, on Gearbox Records, is a monument to the importance of the London Jazz Scene, and by proxy, that scene’s reliance on Tomorrow’s Warriors. Tomorrow’s Warriors is a musical education program Cross took part in that primarily focuses on youth of the city’s African Diaspora community, bringing them into music instrument by instrument, note by note. On Fyah, Cross delivers a hybrid of jazz influenced by electronic music, funk and reggae. The music is driven by the tuba, an oft over looked instrument, which Cross has mastered and which gives the songs within a fresh coat of innovation.

This is not Cross’s first recording, but it is his first full length as a leader. Counted among London’s ascendant musicians, Cross and his brother Noah both work as sidemen in a host of bands, as do most of Tomorrow’s Warriors graduates. Because of this connective tissue, the sounds of these musicians shifts from genre to genre, often in one song, without losing intent or form. That idiomatic transference is a direct byproduct of the program that supported these players in their youth, as they learned tablature, scales and improvisation.

Theon Cross

On Fyah, Cross and company shift from Grime to Brass Band Bounce to Éthiopiques style funk in the space of three quarters of an hour and 8 songs. The vibrancy of these shifts is rarely out of sync with the collection that contains them. That’s primarily because of the collective role that imprinted the players as they collaborated on recordings and live shows, much like New York City’s cooperative jazz scene of the 40s 50s and 60s.

Cross leads the session, with Nubya Garcia on saxophone and Moses Boyd on drums. On several tracks the trio is augmented by a guitarist, another saxophonist, a percussionist and a trombonist. But of the music presented here, it is the dynamism of the original nucleus that best expands the notion of what jazz can be. It sounds easier than it should. Cross’s roots reach deep into the Caribbean. His father is Jamaican and his mother from the island of Saint Lucia. The rhythmic polyphony of that region finds its way organically into his music. Often enough, musical fusion breeds too colloquial a setting to remain fervent, and the weld of genres breaks down. On Fyah, that is not the case.

Tomorrow’s Warriors was founded by bassist Gary Crosby and his wife Janine Irons. Crosby, a jazzer himself with West Indian roots, named the program for the all-black assemblage of London musicians known as the Jazz Warriors where he first found success. The Jazz Warriors offered mentorship and guidance to up-and-coming musicians as well as a place for shining lights to branch out into exploration of music. And, to be clear, much of Crobsy’s tutelage is apparent in the low end theory strewn throughout Cross’s sound.

Pop music can be a descending stairwell into a circle of hellish sycophants whose only commitment is to make a profit off of performers. That’s especially true here in Los Angeles, where pay to play venues still operate. To witness the vicious formula so thoroughly left for dead in the south of London is a musical victory in its own right. To hear the music of the jazz collective that’s blossomed under Crosby’s guidance is to revel in the success of scholastic drive. This is the sound of experimentation, yes, but it is also the sound of knowledge. Shed of the business-minded publicity machinery that fosters so much of today’s mediocrity in music, what you get from Fyah is the sound of musical distinction, music made by people who engage within its language for the pure joy of doing so. There’s youth in each bar. But this youth is sagely elastic, looking both ahead and deep into the past. That’s likely because of Cross, who has a uniquely timeless way of addressing his musical ideology. When he took the tuba position in the London band Sons of Kemet, his exuberance was equally impactful and subtle, as witnessed on the song “My Queen is Harriet Tubman,”from that band’s Mercury Prize nominated recording, Your Queen is A Reptile. Weaving the tuba in through two drummers and a saxophonist, he intrinsically comprehends when to lay it on thick and when to lay out completely, letting his partners take up the charge.

The same improvisational curiosity of New Orleans brass bands reverberates throughout the muzzle of Fyah’s music. This is horn music. Sure, there are guitars and reeds and drums throughout, but the horn is king here, this time the tuba, which sprinkles an exhilarating crispness over even the starless parts of this music. Cross is breaking similar ground as the 60s era American jazzers as they plunged into pools of modal discovery. But it’s Cross’s instrument, the tuba, that defines the music within Fyah more than any categorical idiom. He’s equally adept at playing London’s Grime electronic dance music, reinventing Charles Mingus’s marvelous Black Saint and the Sinner Lady with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, or bridging those diversely fragmented sounds together.

Cross’s tuba is pliant. It’s booming and then subdued. It burbles and gurgles and snarls in a scored grammar that is as esoteric as it is familiar. His style of buzzing low notes adds a gravel-toned urgency that powers “Activate,” the first song on the recording. As the waves of Cross’s growling tuba erase preconceived notions about his instrument, Nubya Garcia’s sax spreads across the bass divide with a fluid but punctual ferocity. As the song continues, Cross and drummer Boyd deconstruct the confines of the rhythmic backline. The three find a unified depth especially notable near the end, when Garcia and Cross double on a solo while Boyd lays out, only to erupt with the others at the song’s finale. It’s a bloom of athletic but heartfelt music.

Nubya Garcia and Theon Cross

Jazz purists (do they still exist?) might sidestep some of these songs because they’re structured on pop elements and often signify an alliance with electronic music, or reggae rather than straight bop. In past efforts, stellar jazz labels like Blue Note and Verve, after being absorbed by larger corporations, had their back catalogs doused with electronics in less than kind but oddly danceable remixes (the Billie Holliday Remixed and Reimagined issued by Sony Legacy in 2007comes to mind as a particularly loathsome experiment in this regard.) This is not that. Cross and co. make music built upon but not fully of their influences, lathering an immediacy rather than the processed reproduction of electronic blips.

A nimble guitar peppers the larger horn section as it sways through the song “CIYA,” where the core trio is augmented by Wayne Francis on tenor saxophone, Artie Zaitz on electric guitar, Tim Doyle on percussion and Noah Cross on trombone. They also join on track five, “Candace of Meroe,” which delivers a melodic turbulence of Afro funk. With “CIYA,”rather than look to previous tempests on the album, the sized up ensemble fabricates a slower mood. It’s neither a ballad, nor a funk, but knits in patches of both those stylistic flourishes. In the hands of another septet, these songs might come off as hackneyed fusion. There are some disco moments, but when that honey arrives, it comes with a refreshing unpredictability. This guitar, an instrument that rarely manages this kind of gauzy adroitness bounces off of Cross’s tuba lines with fluid deferment. The elder Cross takes the first solo on trombone, equating a cool jazz style in the midst of the 70s post fusion melting pot. And when Zaitz follows suit, he uses pedals as much as the fretboard to step out of from the behind staid veil that so often accompanies the notes of a jazz guitar lead. Capable as the sound is, this expanded band isn’t the album’s best unit.

The album’s best tracks are the finale, “LDN’s Burning,” and “Letting Go,” penned by Cross, but again featuring the unified trio. These are songs made of daring improvisational lessons and live shows, unleashed in a gripping sonic pastiche as full of confidence as it is in care. The stuttering bass is coated in echo in one, right up front in the other. Each variation delivers an imaginative swing that brings emotion along for the ride.

There aren’t a lot of records led by tuba players. It’s most recognized in classical ensembles, and when it does play a role in the jazz idiom, it’s usually part of a brass band, and they’re usually based in New Orleans. When a tuba player is found, it’s often someone doubling on the upright, or as with Miles Davis’s landmark Birth of Cool album, strung together with other brass instruments. With Cross’s Fyah, the instrument takes the forefront, and isn’t supplanted for the entire record. That’s a feat that could have backfired leaving the music to feel dated and dominated by quirk. That’s not so with this recording. It’s engaging start to finish, especially when the music is boiled down to the main trio of musicians.

Listen to all of the tracks mentioned in this review at Riot Material: https://www.riotmaterial.com/theon-cross-fyah/

@riotmaterial

RIOT MATERIAL is LA’s premier literary-cultural magazine with an eye on art, word, and forward-aiming thought. Check out our gallery on IG: @ riotmaterial.

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