Album Review: Theon Cross – Fyah

My taste in music is pretty eclectic but jazz is often a bit of a blind spot for me. It’s one the reasons I asked to review this album for Joyzine so I could stretch my ears and dip them into a different landscape. And this is a landscape held together by the growling acoustic bottom end of Theon Cross’s Tuba. On Fyah he is joined by tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd.

Wikipedia cites the tuba as ‘the largest and lowest-pitched musical instrument in the brass family’ patented in 1835 and used to ‘reinforce the bass voices of the strings and woodwinds’ (as well as the stalwart of the colliery brass band). If Theon Cross read this he must have printed it out poured lighter fluid on it and then applied a match.

From the opening track ‘Activate’ we are treated to the tuba as the bass equivalent of a Rolled Steel Joist; a sturdy backbone to stop everything from collapsing. Theon Cross underpins everything offering up root notes as a main highway and then heading off on A and B roads to criss-cross the track. Half way through he takes a solo and I see earthworms the world over pulling subterranean moves.

‘The Offering’ lays down a solid bass groove over which saxophonist Nubya Garcia can place hypnotic repetitive phrases and runs. ‘Radiation’ has a foreboding tone like the theme to a noir crime drama set in a crowded metropolis and near the end the instruments form a cacophony of rush hour sounds and what sounds like FX-treated tuba. ‘Letting Go’ has a laid back sitting-behind-the-groove feel and I love the sections where the tuba and drums take centre stage and the sax is back in the mix like a ghost glimpsed in your peripheral vision.

‘Candace of Meroe’ brings a new vibe with a carnival drum beat and conga opening and guitar accompaniment from Artie Zaitz over which flies a high tuba part and octave jumping sax. ‘Panda Village’ pits the instruments together in a choreographed cage fight and I felt a great celebration of these musicians who were enjoying their musical conversation; easily segueing from staccato sections to languid passages. Once again the use of repetition hangs over the top of the lava-esque tuba and drums.

‘CIYA’ is as close to a standard as this album delivers and all the instruments get to take the tune for a walk. Early Ornette Coleman feels like an influence and the tuba dances around under the mellow sax lines easily riffing on the full neck roving of a double bass player. There’s a cracking solo and a semi-noodle of an ending which seems to demonstrate that everyone wanted to end / didn’t want to end and so they just stopped just after someone laughs, then you hear “Yeah, that’ll do man”.

The closing track is ‘LDN’s Burning’ which harnesses the energy of a feature film into it’s 4 minute running time and from the off there’s an urgency to this track. The Tuba plays an undulating line that fans the flames of the sax which has rising crescendos and echo-lengthened notes. Moses Boyd uses the drums and cymbals like fire: crashing, crackling and rolling round the kit like an out of control blaze threatening to engulf everything. Theon Cross overblows the mouthpiece to create an urgent panic, burning through territory usually reserved for the trombone. This feels like a response to a London built on kindling, ready to burn, or it could be echoing a London already scorched by the pain of Grenfell. I could be reading more into it but either way it’s true to the fact that there are not always happy endings to life; sometimes we get burned.

This is the type of jazz that put me in mind of trip-hop and the acts I loved like DJ Krush, DJ Cam and The Thievery Corporation. I love blurred lines in music genres and especially between dance and jazz. The tuba may not normally have the dexterity of a saxophone but in the hands and fingers of Theon Cross it transcends its clichés. I suspect he is not only whip-smart but also possesses a huge personality that can rise above ‘reinforcing the bass voices of the strings and woodwinds’ and inspire a band that defies gravity, demonstrates superlative use of harmony and melds low, mid and high to create this hugely impressive album. Catch Fyah and enjoy the warmth.

Review by Paul F Cook
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