Theon Cross is a London-based tuba player, composer, and bandleader. Since 2015, he has been a key component in the city’s revitalized jazz scene and a first-call sideman whose unique brand of “tuba bass” ranges across and combines jazz, funk, dubstep, grime, hip-hop, dub, soca, and improvised music. He is a founding member of the award-winning quartet Sons of Kemet, and has worked with Moses Boyd, Jon Batiste, Makaya McCraven, and Courtney Pine, among others. He is a member of South London-based jazz-funk collective Steam Down. Cross leads his own eclectic ensemble to explore the diverse range of musics that contribute to the London scene. 2015′s Aspirations, his self-released debut long-player, garnered nominations for Best Instrumentalist of the Year from the Jazz FM Awards, and Best Jazz Newcomer at the Parliamentary Awards. In 2019 he issued Fyah; it topped the U.K. jazz charts and placed inside the jazz Top Ten in America. After touring was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, he released several singles across 2020 and early 2021, culminating in the release of his third album, Intra-I.
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. It topped the British jazz charts and landed inside the Top Ten on the jazz album charts in the U.S. as well.
Cross took his band on tour for the remainder year and into 2020, when he was forced off the road by the COVID-19 pandemic. He did appear on Moses Boyd’s Dark Matter, and with his brother, trombonist Nathaniel Cross, appeared on French experimental singer/songwriter Lafawndah’s second album, The Fifth Season.
In February 2021 the siblings appeared on Marcus Joseph’s Beyond the Dome. In May, Sons of Kemet released Black to the Future, their fourth long-player. Cross was also busy readying his own material. In July he issued the single and video for the charting, “We Go Again,” featuring vocalist Afronaut Zu and saxophonist Ahnansé. They also appeared on “Spiral,” his second pre-release single in September. In late October, Cross released the long-player Intra-I. Its lineup included poet/drummer Remi Graves, poet and singer Shumba Maasai, rappers Afronaut Zu and Consensus (Antoine Gittens-Jackson), saxophonist Ahnansé, and electric tubist Oren Marshall. ~ Thom Jurek