Theon Cross can still vividly remember when the instrument that’s taken him around the world was more of a liability than an asset.
“Playing the tuba didn’t make me cool when I was at school,” the 26-year-old tells Rolling Stone, speaking via Skype from his London home. “On the bus and the train, I’d always be, like, hitting people whenever I turned around. People would get annoyed with me. Sometimes I’d have to let my friend go ahead ’cause I couldn’t fit. It was definitely a nuisance.”
These days, he’s grateful he stuck it out with the bulky horn. Touring the world with buzzy U.K. jazz groups like Sons of Kemet, he’s blowing minds nightly, exposing a young audience to the possibilities of an instrument that once seemed like an antique. “People have been coming up to me and being like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard the tuba used like that before.’ It’s a massive compliment and a massive push in the right direction.”
It helps that he keeps stellar company. His core collaborators include Shabaka Hutchings, a reedist in Sons of Kemet and one of the key players in London’s ongoing jazz renaissance, as well as saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd. The latter two, both established bandleaders in their own right, also make up the supporting cast on Cross’ new LP, Fyah.
If the sax-tuba-drums lineup seems odd on paper, it makes perfect sense coming out of the speakers. On fiercely kinetic tracks like “Activate,” Boyd weaves in and out of Cross’ minimal vamps, as Garcia blows deft, muscular lines on top. Just as often, though, the two horn players will swap roles, with Garcia holding down the center while Cross plays dexterous phrases that seem to have no business coming out of the tuba.
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“Theon has such incredible dynamic power and his voice on the instrument has such a wide spectrum,” Garcia, who also works with Cross in her own band, tells RS in an e-mail. “Driving at the same time as melodic at the same time as incredibly rhythmic and locked in with everyone.”
Once upon a time, tuba was the original bass instrument in jazz. The horn’s boomy, loping sound was a key feature of pre-swing-era combos. But there was little room for the instrument in the breakneck tempos of bebop, and and with a few notable exceptions — including Ray Draper, who recorded with the likes of John Coltrane, and Howard Johnson, whose c.v. includes an appearance on the Band’s 1972 live album Rock of Ages — very few tuba players in the genre have made a name for themselves as bandleaders.
Cross found his way to jazz tuba via a roundabout route. When he was eight, his parents signed him up for lessons on the tenor horn, most often heard in British brass bands. “As I got bigger, I started moving to bigger instruments,” he says, and the next stop was the euphonium, a smaller relative of the tuba. In high school, he joined Kinetika Bloco, a vibrant London marching band, and a friend introduced him to his current horn. “I pretty much fell in love with it,” Cross says.
From there, he discovered jazz in earnest, through a music-education program called Tomorrow’s Warriors, which Garcia and Boyd also attended. A crucial lesson came when one teacher advised him not to think of himself only in a supporting role. “He basically told me when I was quite young that the fact that there’s no other tuba players playing it melodically is more of an advantage than it is a weakness,” Cross recalls, “and if you learn to survive in situations where it would be a trumpet or sax playing, then it’s only going to be an advantage to you. So those were the times I was transcribing, like, Clifford Brown solos and Sonny Rollins and things like that, and also bass players like Paul Chambers and Art Davis.”
As he started moving in jazz circles, and inhabiting the same spaces as more conventional front-line jazz instrumentalists, he says he encountered skepticism. “I used to go to jam sessions at a place called Ronnie Scott’s in London,” says Cross. “I’d take the instrument out of its case and I could always hear some type of snickering or some type of laughter and more of a ‘Wow. What’s he going to do?’ And I’d learn tunes like ‘Donna Lee,’ quick tunes and things like that. Then people were like, ‘Oh, well, it doesn’t have to be limited.'”
Closer to home, other influences filtered in, including reggae from his Jamaican father, soca from his mother’s family, who immigrated from Saint Lucia, and even country (“‘Cause Saint Lucia has a strange relationship with country,” Cross says). “My grandmother used to throw big parties when I was a kid. I used to hear a lot of zouk music, soca music, calypso music, reggae music. We have this genre called ‘lovers rock,’ which comes from the U.K. from Jamaican immigrants.” Meanwhile, watching MTV, Cross absorbed hip-hop via Missy Elliott, 50 Cent and others.
As an adolescent, he also formed meaningful bonds that carry through to this day. He and Garcia met in their early teens at a jazz workshop at London’s Roundhouse, and Boyd remembers playing basketball with Cross at a local park and later discovering a mutual love for jazz. “Me, Theon and his older brother [trombonist] Nathaniel Cross were like the three musical amigos,” Boyd recalls via e-mail.
These days, the tuba player and drummer are frequent collaborators, both in Cross’ trio and Boyd’s Exodus ensemble. Despite Cross’ choice of instrument, Boyd says he always viewed their rapport as a classic rhythm-section partnership. “I never saw it as unconventional at the time because I had nothing to really compare it against,” he says of working with a brass instrument in that role instead of a string one. “I’d played Afrobeat, jazz, funk and beyond with Theon in our early years, so to me having a tuba bass player wasn’t strange. Now looking back retrospectively, it’s completely unique.”
Fyah’s lean trio setting foregrounds that uniqueness. The album’s title nods not only to the combustible energy that Cross, Boyd and Garcia stir up, but also to the melting-pot London culture that produced it. “So much in the music is coming from a West Indian, London perspective, hence why I spelled it in that stylized way,” Cross says. “It kind of reflects the culture that I’m trying to make it come from.”
The album’s grooves touch on everything from lickety-split Afrobeat (“Candace of Meroe”) to the loping swagger of hip-hop (“Radiation”). As the latter piece builds, Cross’ tuba sound swells to gargantuan size, as though it were blasting out of a blown speaker.
“I’ll give it away — it’s effects, yeah,” he says with a laugh, discussing that and other moments of heightened sonics on Fyah. “I’ve always loved using effects. I think sometimes with certain effects on the tuba, it’s almost like you can put the instrument into somewhere that it wouldn’t normally be. If a hip-hop fan listened to that track, they might not even realize it’s a tuba, and I love that. A small technological pedal can change the whole perception of this instrument that people deem old.”
But at the center of his music is a organic connection with his instrument. When asked about the challenges of playing a bedrock instrumental role, maintaining an unwavering bass line, he describes it almost like a meditation.
“It does get repetitive, but I think it’s therapeutic,” he says. “It’s something about the breathing aspect of it, ’cause it’s not like a string bass where you can keep plucking along. For tuba, you have to find your rhythm, and you have to find your breathing pocket. It’s become natural and right for me.
“Breathing is such a deep thing and such a powerful thing,” he continues. “It’s the sign that you’re alive, and tuba is an instrument that helps you master that.”
That benefit is just one of many he’s discovered, and one of many reasons he’s happy he stuck with the horn that once seemed so cumbersome. “It’s still dawning on me, that perception of the instrument or the perception of me playing the instrument is a cool thing,” he says. “I’m still discovering that now.”
Sounding content, appreciative and a little surprised, he adds, “I hope it continues.”