Theon Cross is a London-based tuba player, composer, and bandleader. Since 2015 he has been one of the key components of the city's revitalized jazz scene and an in-demand sideman for his own unique brand of tuba bass in jazz, funk, dubstep, grime, hip-hop, and improvised music. One journalist remarked that instead of keeping time, he played the instrument like a Roland 303 with its loose, flubbery basslines. He is a founding member of saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings' award-winning quartet Sons of Kemet. He has worked with a diverse range of well-known musicians including Moses Boyd, Jon Batiste & Stay Human, Makaya McCraven, Pharoahe Monch, Emeli Sande, and Courtney Pine, and is a permanent fixture in the South London-based collective Steam Down. In addition to working on others' projects, he leads his own eclectic ensemble that explores the diverse range of London's musical sounds through his compositions. His self-released digital debut release, 2015's Aspirations, brought him international attention as a bandleader and garnered him a pair of nominations for Best Instrumentalist of the Year (Jazz FM Awards 2016) and Best Jazz Newcomer (Parliamentary Awards 2016). He cut 2019's Fyah, his debut long-player, for Gearbox.
Raised in Brockley by Caribbean-born parents, Cross picked up the tuba at age nine. As a teen he was schooled not only at the building he attended, but in a Brazilian-style bloco (the drums-and-brass ensembles popular at Rio's Carnival, and which perform on the U.K.'s street-festival circuit). He had a point to make, which was carving a space for his horn to fit inside improvisational and swinging jazz structures. He spent time transcribing trumpet solos and classic bop and hard bop basslines by Paul Chambers (initially a tuba player himself) and developed a unique rhythmic approach to his instrument informed by the dancehall, electronic, hip-hop, and the drum-and-bass music he loved as much as he did jazz. For Cross, it wasn't learning jazz so much as learning from it and assimilating it into the music he wanted to play. He established himself on the South London club scene as an instrumentalist in hip-hop groups led by rappers like Kano and Ruff Sqwad. After meeting drummer Moses Boyd and Hutchings in a club — the latter was born and raised in the Caribbean — Cross joined their saxophonist in Sons of Kemet, and Boyd in his Exodus and Solo Exodus bands, which infused jazz, grime, and electronic influences. He delivered the Aspirations EP to tape in 2015 and issued it via the internet. It was picked up and played across Europe by club DJs and BBC program hosts. Given his already extensive profile as a sideman and session player with the aforementioned groups, as well as Kansas Smitty's House Band, Aspirations was reviewed favorably, resulting in the prize nominations. In 2016 and 2017, Cross woodshedded, played with others in concert and in clubs, and recorded with Sande on Long Live the Angels, the Ezra Collective on Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, and saxophonist Nubya Garcia on her debut Nubya's 5ive. Garcia and Boyd played on Sons of Kemet's hit Impulse date Your Queen Is a Reptile. Cross contributed the track "Brockley" to Gilles Peterson's award-winning, manifesto-styled compilation We Out Here, an exhaustive survey of the young London scene. The tubist and Garcia worked with McCraven in Europe and in the States, and were documented on his Where We Come From (Chicago X London Mixtape). Toward the end of the year he dropped the pre-release single "Panda Village." The album Fyah, released in February of the following year, was recorded by David Holmes and Giles Barrett. It was performed by Cross, Boyd, Garcia, and saxophonist Wayne Francis (Ahnansé), with Cross' brother Nathaniel guesting on trombone on one track and guitarist Artie Zaitz on two others. Fyah drew rave reviews from indie music outlets and mainstream publications all over the world, prompting the band to tour. ~ Thom Jurek