Theon Cross review – more oomph than oompah from jazz-tuba champion

Headrow House, Leeds
Backed by a highly capable band, the Sons of Kemet star seems to have gills as he generates astonishing beats, textures and melodies with his instrument

The tuba is an instrument of some magnificence. Warm bellied and low-rumbling, it’s been the bedrock of orchestras for quite some time, but is perhaps not what you might think of as a centre-stage star. As part of lauded London group Sons of Kemet (and a collaborator with Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia), Theon Cross is making it his mission to rehabilitate its image. At the overlap between R&B, hip-hop and jazz, his second album Intra-I adopts a cinematic approach to brass beat-making, vibrating with contemporary cool.

On headphones, Intra-I invites main character syndrome: it’s like an imaginary soundtrack for an enthralling inner city crime drama. In a venue as intimate as this, it’s a different kind of arresting; the kind of intense communal experience that makes you wonder how it can happen so casually on an otherwise regular Tuesday night. In a world of samplers and loop pedals, it’s remarkable how little he relies on tape; whether establishing a beat, texture, or buzzing-bee melody, Cross’s pause for breath is so imperceptible that you suspect he must have gills to generate his astonishingly full sound.

Chat between songs is minimal (“we’re going to keep it more musical than verbal”), and from the crash-bang jungle-jazz of Activate to the disco marching band of 40tude, every moment laces itself neatly into the next, attitude lingering like the trail of a sparkler on a winter’s night. Far from a showboat, he builds space for each player to shine; drummer Patrick Boyle whacking his cymbal with meticulous chaos, guitarist Nikos Ziarkas laying down math-rock melodies with eyes tight shut, and Chelsea Carmichael demonstrating exactly why she is one of the country’s most exciting young saxophonists, matching Cross’s energy with ease and joy. In a multigenerational room of attendees, many are left agog, wondering if it’s too late into the New Year to take up a new hobby. If you have pondered the tuba, now might well be the time – this instrument just got seriously hip.