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Nathaniel Cross: Deep Vibrations

Nathaniel Cross: Deep Vibrations
Chris May By

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Wayne Shorter’s debut album still blows me away now. It tells a story and understanding the importance of that helped me take my own writing up a level. The know-how is there and the emotional intelligence is also there. It’s like a perfect balance of left brain and right brain. Wayne’s music hits me on a deep level.
—Nathaniel Cross
At the time of writing in summer 2021, there are a number of super-talented musicians on London's alternative jazz scene who deserve far more prominence than they have yet to achieve. Some of these players have been ill-served by their record labels. Others have only recorded as sidepersons. A few have chosen to confine their music-making to off-radar community settings. One or two have their careers on hold while they combat private demons.

One such under-recognized musician is the trombonist, composer and arranger Nathaniel Cross. To date, Cross is probably best known for his work on drummer Moses Boyd's Mercury Prize-nominated album, Dark Matter (Exodus, 2020), on which he played and for which he arranged four of the ten tracks, one of which he co-wrote with Boyd. Cross' reputation among other musicians is sky high and his many other supporting role credits include singers Zara McFarlane and Macy Gray and grime stars Stormzy and Kano. All this behind-the-scenes activity led to Cross being dubbed "the Quincy Jones of Catford" (the area in southeast London where he grew up and continues to live) in an article in Rolling Stone magazine. But compared with his younger brother, Theon Cross, who plays tuba with tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings' quartet Sons of Kemet, Nathaniel Cross' name is still quite niche.

Happily, this may be about to change. In June 2021, Cross released his own name debut, the 30-minute, four-track EP The Description Is Not The Described (First Word). It may have been some time coming, but it is a blinder, packed with uplifting music which, in trademark London style, augments its jazz foundation with dashes of other music, including calypso, Afro-Cuban, hip hop and broken beat.

The disc's title is inspired by one of philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti's maxims. Cross chose it because he feels it reflects the state of the world in 2021. "So many of us are caught up in labels and descriptions that we end up looking at people for what they are, rather than embrace them for who they are," he says. "No matter how detailed the description is, it will never capture the essence."

Opening track "Goodbye For Now" is dedicated to Cross' late father, who passed in March 2020 at a tragically young age. Its opening bars reference the signature ostinatos of John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Pharoah Sanders' "The Creator Has A Master Plan," and the track includes a short extract from a tape-recorded conversation between Cross, when he was a toddler, and his father. Cross found it when he was sorting out his father's belongings after he passed. The vibe is upbeat and positive, as it is on "Charge It To The Game" and "Light In The Darkness." The tempo, but not the heat, decreases a little on the closing track, "Who Looks Inside, Awakes," whose title is taken from a maxim coined by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung.

As the track titles suggest, Cross is widely read. It has to be more than a coincidence that the same is true of his formative influence as a composer, Wayne Shorter. At school, Shorter was given the nickname Mr. Gone, later the title of an album by Weather Report, in recognition of his interest in philosophy and abstract thought in general. (Shorter's trumpet playing brother, Alan Shorter, had a similarly enquiring mind and was called Doc Strange by his schoolfriends). More about Wayne Shorter later.

Cross started playing trombone at primary school when he was ten years old. "I didn't choose it," he says. "It was assigned to me by the music teacher. There was a cupboard full of old brass instruments which had been left behind by a military band who once rehearsed there. Rather than throw them away, they hired a trumpet player to come and teach us."

When he was 13, Cross started attending band practice with Kinetica Bloco. A combination marching band and community outreach project, Kinetica Bloco was founded in 2000 by the inspirational teacher and multi-instrumentalist Mat Fox. It took its cultural influences not from Western traditions but from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and New Orleans. Many of the musicians on London's 2021 alternative jazz scene have passed through Kinetica, just like they have passed through the Tomorrow's Warriors band and outreach project founded in 1991 by two other inspirational figures, bassist Gary Crosby and his partner Janine Irons. The London scene owes a massive debt to both organisations. Fox passed away in 2014 but Kinetica Bloco is still going strong, as is Tomorrow's Warriors, which Cross also attended.

"Kinetica was a really important part of my learning music and enjoying it more," says Cross. "Until I joined, my music education was all about getting through my grades. Andy Grappy, a tuba player who was a mentor for me and Theon, came to our school to talk about Kinetica and what they were about. He and Mat Fox had a gift for making music engaging for kids. Before Kinetica I was just playing classical excerpts and scales and so forth. Important stuff but not a lot of fun, and to be honest, I wasn't enjoying it that much. But Mat introduced us to Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, all this fun music. And there were dancers and drummers. Kinetica got me more deeply engaged in music. It was exciting.

"Andy could see I was serious so he told my Dad about Tomorrow's Warriors. I started with them when I was fourteen. Classes were every other Sunday back then. It was about jazz and learning about improvisation. Kinetica was more like world music, different cultures and folk songs. Both organisations have been incredibly important parts of my development as a musician and generally as a person."

Cross also studied jazz trombone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, starting there in 2009 and graduating in 2013.

Compared with the trumpet or the saxophone, the valve trombone has not produced a great number of players for young musicians to use as role models; this is probably for the simple reason that it is a relatively difficult instrument to master. "J J Johnson was my first influence," says Cross. "He was one of the great innovators on jazz trombone. I didn't really like the trombone that much when I first started. Then Andy Grappy told me to listen to J.J. It was like, wow! I thought it sounded amazing. He had amazing technique and great articulation and could play cleanly at very fast tempos. So I spent my early years just trying to copy him. He gave me a reference about how the trombone is meant to sound and opened up a new world for me.

"Later, one of my biggest influences was Wayne Shorter. He's such a well-rounded musician, compositionally, harmonically, his arrangements. And he doesn't just play licks; whatever he plays tells a story. Studying his compositions has taught me so much about harmony and melody."

Another big influence on Cross, and the alternative London jazz scene in general, has been the specificity and diversity of cultural heritage. "This is fundamental to modern British jazz," says Cross. "An African American is just an African American. But in Britain, you know if your heritage is Caribbean or African and from which island or which country. You know you're Black British from Dominica or Barbados or Ghana or Nigeria, wherever. That gives us more cultural reference points. Like my mother's parents were from St. Lucia and my father's parents were from Jamaica. So I grew up hearing a lot of records from the islands: reggae, ska, soca, calypso. Because we have direct connections to the islands or the countries in Africa, it allows us to import those influences into the music, to tap into different sources. And then just growing up in London, hearing grime, hearing sound systems. All those things come into my music."

Which brings us back to The Description Is Not The Described and the origins of that title. "I like Krishnamurti because he doesn't ever come on holier than thou," says Cross. "He's really straightforward. I went through a period of reading a lot of his writings when I was 19, 20. It helped me a lot, gave me more balance in life, it put the world into perspective. With Krishnamurti, everyone is on the same level, a human level, it's not about cultures or races or whatever. It's about human consciousness, humanity in general."

Another thinker who has made a deep impression on Cross and who is referenced on the record is the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. "He had this poem which goes 'Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes,'" says Cross. "It's all about how you can find greatness within yourself. I thought it made a great title for the last track. It could apply to people who seek validation from the number likes they get on social media, but of course Jung was around long before we had social media. He was talking about how you live your life in general. Like with people who judge their success on the number of women they attract, or the number of men. Jung was saying that what you really need to do to understand yourself is to look within yourself.

"The tune itself is actually based on a Wayne Shorter composition called 'Sleeping Dancers Sleep On.' While I was writing 'Who Looks Inside, Awakes' I was playing Wayne's chords for that tune. I made a few adjustments here and there but it's based on Wayne's changes. It gave me the idea of borrowing Jung's saying for the song title."

Two other tracks—"Light In The Darkness" and "Charge It To The Game"—are borrowed from more widely known sayings. "Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Only in the darkness can you see the stars,'" says Cross. "He meant that with too much darkness you're blind, but with too much light you're also blind." The expression "Charge It To The Game" is a popular expression meaning that if something unfortunate happens to you, put it down to experience and move on.

Did Cross write the record's remaining track, "Goodbye For Now," in memory of his father? "I actually wrote it a few years ago," says Cross. "But when I was finishing the EP, my father passed away so it gave the title a deeper meaning. And after he passed away, and we were clearing out where he was living, I found a bag of cassettes. Some of them were music from his old band. He'd played guitar and sung with a reggae band called Nyansis. Then I found a cassette he'd made of me and him talking when I was a very young child. I thought 'I've got to put that on the track.' So I just put a little extract on the record, to pay homage to him."

Cross' father is referenced again in the six album choices which follow. Cross chose these albums because they track his progress in becoming a musician. He lists them in more or less the order in which he came across them.

NATHANIEL CROSS: SIX SEMINAL ALBUMS

J.J. Johnson
The Eminent J.J. Johnson Vol. 2
Blue Note, 1955

J.J. was my introduction to jazz and he's been my biggest influence playing jazz on the trombone. I first heard him when I was 14, and he started me on my journey. I've chosen this particular album because it was the first J.J. album I bought and I listened to it constantly. I can still remember going to the shop and buying it. There's no other horn, just J.J., Wynton Kelly on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums and Sabu Martinez on congas.

Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers
Ugetsu
Riverside, 1963

This is a great recording of a gig at Birdland. It's another album I bought early on. The vibe of it, the ensemble work, the compositions, it all just blew me away. Curtis Fuller's on it, another great trombonist. Half of the tracks were written by Wayne Shorter. This was the first album I heard with Wayne on it, and like I said, along with J.J., he's been a massive influence on me. Checking out the harmonies and melodies helped me progress with writing. I went through a period of just listening to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers albums, and the tunes I gravitated to were always by Wayne Shorter, which is how I discovered him. This brings me to my next album.

Wayne Shorter
Introducing Wayne Shorter
Vee Jay, 1960

Listening to compositions Wayne wrote for other people's albums, the Messengers or Lee Morgan or whoever, made me think this is what I have to aim for myself. Introducing was Wayne's first album under his own name and it's amazing. It still blows me away now. It tells a story and understanding the importance of that helped me take my own writing up a level. The attention to detail is something else, and it's really spiritual as well. The know-how is there and the emotional intelligence is also there. It's like a perfect balance of left brain and right brain. Wayne's music hits me on a really deep level. I used to listen to this album and think, when I make a record, I want to create something on these levels. It made me think about what kind of impact I'd want to make.

The RH Factor
Hard Groove
Verve, 2003

For younger generations of musicians like mine, Roy Hargrove was such an important figure. His style stretched from the swing guys right up to the present, the whole history of jazz, plus then voodoo and many other things. I first heard his music when I was in Sixth Form college and it really hit me. He was playing real jazz and he was telling his own story, with grooves, electric bass in the background. Erykah Badu and Q-Tip are in there too. It was all about intention, telling your own story. He was a great example to me about merging my own cultural influences into jazz. Like he knew jazz, but he also knew hip hop, salsa, samba, other things. He gave me a reference about how I might want to do that myself.

Bob Marley
Rastaman Vibration
Island, 1976

This brings back memories for me. I'm old enough to have had a cassette player, and my father would often burn cassettes for me. If I was going on a school trip, Dad would burn me some cassettes for the journey. This was one he burnt for me when I was going on a trip to France. I think it was one of the first Bob Marley albums I listened to. In the '80s, Dad's band Nyansis never recorded but they did go to Jamaica to appear at Reggae Sunsplash one year. Dad tried to instill good morals in us and Bob Marley's music was part of that and also a good introduction to our Jamaican heritage. So this album is like a sentimental thing, a homage thing.

Moacir Santos
Carnival Of The Spirits
Blue Note, 1975

This is a more recent one for me. I only got it a couple of years ago. I discovered it through Akwasi Mensah, who was helping me with my EP in the early stages. He's with IG Culture and Kaidi Tatham, those broken beat guys. Akwasi was playing me a lot of music I didn't know. He's one of those guys who knows a lot of different music from all over the place. One of the albums he played me was this one by Moacir Santos, who was a multi-instrumentalist from Brazil who came up through samba and bossa nova in the '60s. I listened to it and I was like, wow, this is amazing! It just blew me away: the feeling, the melodies, the orchestrations, the mix, everything. And I thought, I want to record something like that. Funnily enough, J.J. Johnson takes a solo on one track.

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