Theon Cross: Intra-I
Over the past half decade, Theon Cross has reconstituted the tuba’s image in the popular imagination. Whether bolstering the Shabaka Hutchings-led Sons Of Kemet, providing the oomph for Kano’s live shows, or in his own role as bandleader and solo artist, he’s elevated the instrument from bulky backing brass (or, worse, comedy prop) to core constituent. His debut album, 2019’s Fyah, added a booming rumble to the conversation, exhibiting deft interplay between tuba, sax and drums. On Intra-I, his horn is central to the party. Inviting guest vocalists into his fold for the first time, Cross delivers a collection of taut pop songs that’s deeply rooted in the annals of Afro-Caribbean soundsystem culture—spanning sweaty clubs, hall parties, and funeral rites.
“Roots,” graced by British-Zimbabwean MC Shumba Maasai and his deliciously rolled “Rs,” channels Roots Manuva and the late Ty in a revival of “bouncement” era UK hip-hop. “Play To Win” sounds like a live-action version of Dot Rotten’s explosive “Bazooka” instrumental—a beat that accepts few imitations. These nods to the past, and a repeated refrain of “Watch what the future holds, then aim higher” on “Roots,” resemble a motto of sorts for Cross and his contemporaries. But there’s a risk associated with having such clear touch points. The influence of soundsytem-rooted genres like soca, dancehall, UK hip-hop, and grime has been a sustaining feature of London’s ebullient young jazz scene pretty much since its inception; but what was once striking and new can easily slip into more superficial territory. However, Cross consistently avoids the sighing recognition that comes from watching yet another jazz player do a rendition of a grime song. Tracks like “We Go Again” and “The Spiral” funnel heavy, hip-swinging grooves through moody pop compositions, allaying any such fears of gimmickry.
Underlying the jubilation are moments of mournful contemplation. Cross’ father, whose taste and passion for reggae have had a lasting influence on the tuba player, passed away in 2020. “Watching Over (Bless Up Dad)” and “Forward Progression II” both pay tribute, the former with sermonic drones and the latter with a heavy-stepping, trumpet-led exaltation. Cross’ playing is charismatic, and the dense rumble he draws from his instrument is potent; he imbues these songs with unguarded emotion—conjuring the scuffle of feelings borne out, in the Caribbean tradition, at a Nine Nights wake.
In 2019, Cross spoke of the influence that parties at his grandmother’s home have had on his music—with zouk, soca, calypso, and reggae music filtering through from those moments to his later years. If the result of that was Fyah, then Intra-I is the soundtrack for a new generation of music lovers to grow with. Cross hasn’t just connected his instrument with the soundsystem culture that informs his music, he’s made it an integral component of that tradition. For this tuba player, the air kicked out by speaker cones is just the same as the breath he pushes through his mouthpiece.
Buy: Rough Trade
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