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Nathaniel Cross Praises the Polyglot

Ken Micallef profiles the British up-and-comer and his debut EP

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Nathaniel Cross
Nathaniel Cross

Trombonist Nathaniel Cross is among those inventive London-based musicians for whom jazz is a laboratory to meld unique British sensibilities with what began as an exclusively American art form. Cross’ The Description Is Not the Described (First Word) is a four-composition EP of polyglot music imbued with hard-bop/postbop horns, synthesized bass, hand percussion, hip-hop-worthy low-end logic, and more.

“I know the New York thing,” Cross states via Zoom from London. “It’s very much in the tradition, and if it’s not the tradition it’s overlooked, and people think it’s blasphemy. It’s easy to get into the mindset that jazz is elite music and everything else is inferior. 

“I wanted to merge jazz with the music I’ve grown up listening to,” Cross continues; he’s a fast talker with a thick accent. “I didn’t learn jazz via New York or New Orleans. I learned jazz via London and via a Black British household, a Black Caribbean household [also containing his tuba-playing brother Theon], hearing calypso, soca, reggae, and ska. It felt more natural and honest to take what I’ve learned and merge it with what I already know.”

The Description Is Not the Described—on which Cross is joined by Dylan Jones, trumpet; Richie Garrison, tenor saxophone; Sheldon Agwu, guitar; Urahara Mitchell, keyboards; Andre Jack and Emmanuel Oladokun, bass; Yahael Camara-Onono, Michael “Ayan Mich’l” Adesina, and Phillip Harper, percussion; and Saleem Raman, drums—is bubbling, kinetic, fresh-faced music, and its melodies engross via novel approaches. Hard-knuckled rim slaps, rippling hand drum, and growling synth bass propel “Light in the Darkness,” topped by one of Cross’ several fluid trombone solos. “Goodbye for Now” sounds like an outtake from Weather Report’s Black Market, leavened with soca-inspired horn lines. R&B-inspired Hammond B-3 organ opens “Who Looks Inside, Awakes,” which is soon upended by a lurching beat, rhythmic clavinet stabs, dueling horn phrases, and ensuing solos. 

 “’Who Looks Inside, Awakes’ is from Carl Jung,” Cross explains. “It means rather than looking outside of yourself for validation, [look] within. Once you learn to love yourself, that’s when you truly awaken. The album title comes from Jiddu Krishnamurti. The full quote is ‘The description is not the described. I can describe the mountain, but the description is not the mountain. And if you are caught up in the description, as most people are, then you will never see the mountain.’”

“I didn’t learn jazz via New York or New Orleans. I learned jazz via London and via a Black British household.”

Cross says his debut EP began “as a jazz arranging exercise. I attended [Guildhall School of Music & Drama] and took it upon myself to learn more about arranging. Spent a lot of time transcribing hard bop, bebop, Art Blakey and the Messengers’ melodies, big-band scores, classical scores. When I was writing these tunes, I came up with these very jazzy melodies. But I don’t want to play standards anymore.”

Nathaniel’s trombone and arranging skills have made him invaluable to the live and recorded performances of Solange, Emeli Sandé, Stormzy, Zara McFarlane, Kano, David Murray, LCSM, Swindle, Macy Gray, and Moses Boyd, including the latter’s Mercury Prize-nominated album Dark Matter.

“In America you might not know what part of Africa you’re from,” Cross says, regarding Black lineage. “But I’m Black British, via St. Lucia on my mother’s side and Jamaica on my father’s side. Others here know they’re Black British Ghanaian, Black British Nigerian, Black British Trinidad, Black British Dominique. We’re tapped into the cultures of those places. That’s why in the U.K. you hear an amalgam of styles, because many of us are tapped into the region where our parents or our grandparents came from.” 

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Ken Micallef

Ken Micallef was once a jazz drummer; then he found religion and began writing about jazz rather than performing it. (He continues to air-drum jazz rhythms in front of his hi-fi rig and various NYC bodegas.) His reportage has appeared in Time Out, Modern Drummer, DownBeat, Stereophile, and Electronic Musician. Ken is the administrator of Facebook’s popular Jazz Vinyl Lovers group, and he reviews vintage jazz recordings on YouTube as Ken Micallef Jazz Vinyl Lover.