Theon Cross is my favorite tubist, and he should be yours. I’d venture that he is the #1 tubist going in the world today. This is admittedly not a high hurdle to clear--I’m struggling to name another act in my regular rotation that features a tuba. There was that band Drums and Tuba on Righteous Babe around the turn of the century, and any number of party-starting brass band ensembles you may have caught live, but the unwieldy marching band staple just does not pop up on the regular in the world of pop, rock, or even very much in jazz. Theon Cross, though, has the benefit of coming from the thrilling and closely-watched contemporary London jazz scene, where he’s already put in years of work as a supporting player (notably with the other two members of this LP’s primary trio, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd) as a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ Mercury-nominated combo Sons of Kemet, so his debut full-length Fyah comes (wait for it) hotly tipped.
This record really is a space heater. Turn it on and folks will gather round it and glow. The inherent viscerality of such a deep, earthy-toned instrument hits firmly below the hips, as Cross comes out of the box tough on opener “Activate,“ lighting up a farty funk while a bouncing Boyd on drums keeps it hot-stepping, and Garcia’s tenor gets loose on top. It’s a floor shaker of an intro.
Cross’s tuba understandably functions like a bass on many of his eight compositions on Fyah, like the hypnotic liquid line he lays down on juke joint/dub experience “The Offerings.” It also involves itself in fun rhythmic interplay, like the call-and-response and tricksy slowdowns on banger “Radiation,” a hip-hop excursion that turns psychedelic. Cross confounds expectations of his instrument’s limitations, evincing the versatility and adventurousness that have come to be expected from the We Out Here generation of London players, much like Chicago’s International Anthem roster, with which Cross, Garcia and others have intermingled, notably on Makaya McCraven’s Where We Come From mixtape.
Like his work on that project’s opener “Halls,” Fyah is mostly jamming and propulsive, well-timed for a dead-of-winter release when it’s important to keep moving, and has soundtracked the conversion of my apartment’s enclosed porch into the workout room (Though an over-40 dude trying to get fit is probably not the reco that Cross and label Gearbox are seeking. Whatever, though--the trio keeps it bopping). There’s not copious amounts of emotional depth and enigmatic shadings to be found, but breathing breaks are provided intermittently, with cool “CIYA” tip-toeing the smooth jazz borderline, and “Letting Go” giving Theon a chance to provide melodic tuba work early, before an overdubbed Nubya delivers a sultry lyrical denouement.
Fyah remains unified as an album even as the subgenres change, and wrinkles like electric guitar pop in (played by Artie Zaitz on “CIYA” and “Candace of Meroe”’s frenetic afrobeat). “Panda Village” surprises with spacey synths that sound suited to electric relaxation, as Boyd’s crackling drumming provides Cross and Garcia another kinetic playground. That tune is emblematic of the album as a whole--a set of invigorating performances from players you should know, showing out individually while contributing to a notable debut from a not-just-niche instrumentalist, and to the incandescent London jazz scene at large.