GK is blown away by Theon Cross’s genre defying second album
There’s no question the structures and sensibility of Jazz underpin virtually all of modern music, but it can be so tricky to pin down. In many ways it’s the dark matter of music, it permeates everything but, to the average ear, is often impossible to spot – Nile Rodgers explaining the influence of Jazz on “Let’s Dance” is a fine example. So many foundational artists are grounded in the genre, Herbie Hancock, Earth Wind and Fire, Roy Ayers, the list is endless.
Jazz is as pivotal to hip hop as soul and funk, as A Tribe Called Quest make abundantly clear. The connections with Drum n Bass aren’t immediately obvious – but it pervades the samples and is plainly a huge influence on many of the pioneers; Roni Size consistently speaks of it as the vital touchstone and Doc Scott remixed Miles Davis. In the melting pot of the 1990s Jazz was hiding in plain sight, most obviously with Jamiroquai and acid jazz, but also in the trip hop scene, where labels like Mo’ Wax and Ninja Tune were releasing experimental music side by side with the head nodding smoked out rhythms. In its pure and undiluted form the raw complexity and strangeness of Jazz can be daunting and difficult for even the most committed music fan, but in recent years that has started to change. A scene has emerged in the UK that simultaneously takes in the rich history of the genre, but is equally unafraid to take in the new styles that Jazz created. Music that forgoes the esoteric in favour of the daring and the new.
That preamble brings us to Intra-I – Theon Cross’s second solo album, (following 2019’s Fyah). He has been a cornerstone in the UK scene, a member of the Sons Of Kemet and regular contributor to the Steam Down collective. The good people of Stepping Tiger brought him to Chester a few months before the pandemic for a memorable show. This new long player does so many remarkable things – it is palpably founded in Jazz, but the scope is so much wider than that – hip hop, electronica, dub and grime are all represented. The record is shot through with powerful vocals, opening up with a sonorous statement of intent from London based poet Remi Graves before moving into the irrestible opening groove of “We Go Again” – starting with a slowed down broken beat, the soulful and deep sound of Cross’s Tuba lapping over it in wave upon wave.
But the album never stays still; Zimbabwean born MC Shumba Maasai brings a distinctively African and UK flow to what is ostensibly a striaghtforward hip hop track. Thereafter every song takes an incremental turn in style, “40tude” dives into pure electronics – “Play To Win” recruits MC Consensus for a raw slice of Grime. Whilst there isn’t a stand out, every track is a winner, there’s no question “Forward Progression II” is a show stopper – a dub track like no other, with Cross’s bass line driving it to mesmerising effect. That’s the key to the record as a whole, whilst each track takes in different musical influences – the beauty of the playing always radiates through. This is an album that embraces the unexpected and otherworldly nature that makes Jazz music both forbidding and beguiling but, crucially, it wraps that strangeness into incredible songs, powerful lyrics and a warm musicality that never lets go. A truly remarkable record.