The first notes of Fyah, the debut album from U.K. tuba player Theon Cross, hit with all the metallic force of a Nine Inch Nails industrial anthem. “Activate,” the opening track, would fit right into a DJ set at one of the clubs in which London’s current jazz movement was born, with Nubya Garcia’s exuberant sax ringing out like an air horn while Moses Boyd’s frenetic drumming causes walls to sweat. To audiences outside London, Cross is probably best known as a member of Sons of Kemet, whose dancehall ring-shout jazz is propelled by his pulsing tuba. Fyah can reflect that sound, but mostly it showcases Cross’ own exploration of what his instrument’s role in contemporary music can be.
His playing goes beyond the bassline fill-ins that tubas and sousaphones often provide in traditional New Orleans jazz—although the music does venture into NoLa-inspired collective improvisations like “Panda Village,” which descends into club territory with a fierce drop midway through. Cross’ five-to-eight-note riffs are more like mantras or chants, over which Garcia soars with fierce preaching. The group sound coalesces best on “The Offerings” and “Letting Go,” each of which boasts a breathtaking solo by Cross, a man with Olympian lungs.