Updated: Mar 13, 2019
15 February 2019
Album Rating 4.5 / 5
Live Potential 4.5 / 5
Solo Performances 4 / 5
Diversity in Songs 4 / 5
Favourite Songs Panda Village, Radiation, Activate
Theon Cross’ Fyah is yet another exciting album coming out of the thriving jazz scene in London; Cross proves exactly why he is in demand to perform with his contemporaries in this movement and at the same time, propelling the almost forgotten tuba back into the limelight of modern jazz.
Progressing from the impressive debut EP Aspirations in 2015 and plying his trade in numerous projects over the past six years including with the Mercury Prize nominated Sons of Kemet, a collaboration with Makaya McCraven on Where We Come From (Chicago x London Mixtape) in 2018 and providing one of the tracks on Brownswood’s We Out Here compilation album, Cross has demonstrated why his bouncy tuba rhythms are important in this scene.
The instrument can create the excitement of a powerful performance to come in a matter of a few blows, and this was evident with ‘Panda Village’ and ‘Activate’ as his two singles preceding his debut album’s release last month. Backed by his trusted friends Moses Boyd (Moses Boyd Exodus, Binker & Moses, Zara McFarlane) on drums and Nubya Garcia (Nubya Garcia, Maisha, Nérija) on tenor saxophone, these songs set the tone for the album; passionate solos swirl around Boyd’s chops as they probe skanky-dub dance grooves throughout, with ‘Panda Village’ exploring more sinister and ominous electronica elements to compliment Garcia’s journey on the outro from shimmering cries punctured on the sax to tender soft jabs.
What was surprising was Cross’ ability to add a range of songs to compliment the blasts and rumbles of his first two singles to create an album showcasing every possible tonality in the lowest-pitched brass instrument, allowing more gentleness and subtlety to be appreciated properly. The relaxed ‘The Offerings’ allows Cross to gurgle underneath Garcia’s echoing sax that lingers over the murmuring crowd.
In ‘CIYA’, the introduction of Tim Doyle (Don Kipper, Cykada, Chiminyo, Maisha) on percussion, Artie Zaitz (Artie Zaitz Quartet) on guitar, Wayne Francis (United Vibrations, Ahnansé, Steam Down Collective) on tenor sax, and Cross’s brother Nathaniel Cross (Moses Boyd Exodus, Zara McFarlane) on trombone enhances the calming, chilled, melancholy feel around solos that neither ramble on nor play too loud. What stands about ‘CIYA’ is how it epitomises this new this style of jazz; for example, rather than Boyd playing a steadily swung ride pattern, he chooses to create this slow stop-starting shuffle almost in a hip-hop style just slightly dragging behind the rhythm.
Other musical influences outside of jazz are quite apparent in songs such as ‘Candace of Meroe’ – a song Cross explained on his press interview with Worldwide FM is inspired by Ethiopian Queen Candace in her stance against Alexander the Great – which has an afrobeat-style groove with lovely jumpy tuba patterns alongside hip-moving wobbliness from Zaitz’s guitar and tight sax riffs by Francis. ‘Radiation’ includes a squelchy tuba solo at the end almost reminiscent of the kind of sound to resonate from a jungle sound system event to create a refreshingly fat and heavy stomp before returning to the main rhythm.
‘Letting Go’ allows the opportunity for more freedom in Cross’ solos with Garcia’s sax teasing throughout but is probably one Fyah’s less potent songs alongside ‘LDN’s Burning’, that is until it comes to life at the end after what seems in hindsight as an elongated preamble to one of the more addictive riffs from the album. Garcia blasts it out for the final two minutes and the incorporation in production of a second sax to add weight and even more emotion to the riff leaves us yearning for it to continue.
What makes this album so exciting, and what is often the case with many of the other projects Cross is involved in, is how it challenges what jazz is in the 21st century and engages a youthful audience to appreciate how Cross interprets and pushes his own boundaries of what he wants jazz to be. In many ways, Cross playing the tuba compared to other musicians in the scene is pushing this boundary further simply because the tuba is neglected by a large amount of contemporary jazz groups.
Is this the start of a more urban and dirty jazz feel that incorporates grime, dub and afrobeat? Cross is certainly making that case, and he is only one of the very important core of young black musicians in this new revolution of jazz music reverberating through the UK from London.
Fyah is fighting against our traditional conceptions of jazz and has helped to further cement and establish this new jazz scene as the scene that defines the UK jazz movement. The album doesn’t drag, and each song offers interesting melodies that cruise through without any hesitancy or empty moments.
His marauding skanky rhythms brings jazz back to its origins of being music to dance the night away to; yet Cross escapes from traditional jazz patterns and welcomes his own reggae and hip-hop influences to produce an album worthy to be slapped onto your stereos on repeat for years to come.
Theon Cross – Tuba; Moses Boyd – Drums; Nubya Garcia – Tenor Saxophone (Tracks 1-4, 6, 8); Wayne Francis – Tenor Saxophone (Tracks 5, 7); Nathaniel Cross – Trombone (Tracks 5, 7); Artie Zaitz – Electric Guitar (Tracks 5, 7); Tim Doyle – Percussion (Tracks 5, 7).