* Every Kemet show has a tuba solo by Cross, where he straddles and leaps across jazz, hip-hop and even soca music (Calypso) with the alacrity of a mountain goat. He released his first album as a bandleader, calling it Fyah.
* Band founder Jack Stratton and the boys have cultivated a cult following for their teeth-clenching, fist-pumping, neck-bobbing brand of funk. And this year saw them branch out into The Fearless Flyers, a side project laden with the trademark breezy yet evolved funk that is the hallmark of the Vulfpeck sound.
As the season to be jolly descends upon a weary world, and the golden rays of vaccinated hope begin to light up the horizon, it is perhaps a good time to spread the gift of music.
Two new artistes are lighting up the festive season with a heady mix of attitude laden groove, feisty vibes and a sense of humour.
The tuba, a low-pitched brass instrument, has traditionally been the backbencher of the musical instrument roll call. Propping up the low ends with its insistent, sonorous sound, it usually lit up the chorus line of New Orleans style jazz traditions. Theon Cross did not initially fall in love with the tuba. At the age of eight, while growing up in London, he went instead for tenor horn lessons. It was only in his mid-teens that the deep sound of the tuba started calling out to him.
Then there was no looking back. Along came the collaborations with the likes of American piano impresario Jon Batiste (of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader fame), the unbelievably melodious British singer-songwriter Emeli Sande and the young American flagbearer of jazz percussion — Makaya McCraven.
Then, in February 2019, Cross decided to step firmly into the limelight of the London jazz scene that he had set on fire with the band Sons of Kemet. Every Kemet show has a tuba solo by Cross, where he straddles and leaps across jazz, hip-hop and even soca music (Calypso) with the alacrity of a mountain goat. He released his first album as a bandleader, calling it Fyah. Recorded as a trio for the most part, the album is a glorious rediscovery of the nuance of the tuba as an instrument, and of Cross’s love for the sounds that it crafts. And yes, grammatical liberties notwithstanding, the name fits the music like a glove.
Speaking of fire stokers, the gloves usually come off when the no holds barred American funk group Vulfpeck starts to play in the vicinity. Such is the visceral emotion of their music that the band’s bassist Joe Dart’s rhythmic neck movements have a separate fan base. Band founder Jack Stratton and the boys have cultivated a cult following for their teeth-clenching, fist-pumping, neck-bobbing brand of funk. And this year saw them branch out into The Fearless Flyers, a side project laden with the trademark breezy yet evolved funk that is the hallmark of the Vulfpeck sound meant to induce more laughs with their style of stage antics while grooving to some serious rhythms whipped up by the legendary American drummer Nate Smith. Vulfpeck’s guitarists Cory Wong and Mark Lettieri bring up the rhythm section, with Dart on bass providing low-end joy to Smith’s on-point, eye-watering, feel-drenched drumming. Guest collaborators include Australian trombonist Elizabeth Lea building some serious bass on the trombone, and there’s a special appearance by Stratton as guest announcer in the middle of a few tracks as well.
The Fearless Flyers have released two Extended Play records. The disaster of 2020 saw a bit of a silver lining in their first full length album. It has been released on a Vulf Records label which, as the name suggests, is an effort by the band to encourage the making of music unencumbered by the tyranny of numbers. Their sound is happy, snappy, and unveils some serious musicianship under a hand that feels warm and comforting. We could all do with a bit more warmth as a brutal year draws to a close.
Theon Cross and The Fearless Flyers invoke the sheer, unadulterated joy of crafting sound to bring a smile to the face and a tap to the feet of their listeners. But they also embody a joy that syncs rather perfectly with this time of the year. After all, ‘tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la!
(Mad About Music is a monthly column on contemporary music)
Sarthak Kaushik is an RJ at Ishq 104.8 FM, Delhi