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Theo Croker defies jazz in first release for Dee Dee Bridgewater’s new label

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Theo Croker · AfroPhysicist · DDB Records via Sony Music Masterworks/OKeh · Release Date: May 20, 2014

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Theo Croker is one of the most promising and creative trumpeters on the horizon today and is also one of the most energetic artists I have ever encountered. —Marcus Belgrave

It’s hard to put your finger on trumpeter Theo Croker’s new album, AfroPhysicist, out since May 20, 2014 on Dee Dee Bridgewater’s DDB Records. Is it jazz? Soul? Funk? Some artful fusion of all three? It’s everything.

Croker can do jazz. His straight-ahead “Moody’s Mood For Love” with Bridgewater shines as a Blue Note special. The tones and the angles of the young artist’s trumpet promise a good time. The way he can hold the notes in tune with the vibe of the down-home intimacy of the piece, without sounding as if he’s holding the notes...

The Croker and Bridgewater combination can’t be beat. She felt this when the two vibed together at the October 2009 Shanghai Jazz Festival onstage and at an after-party jam. They began to talk about his music, he showed her his work in progress on an iPod, and the rest became the next talk of the town, this album that defies labels. One thing’s clear, they did not set out to make jazz. “The first thing Dee Dee said was, ‘We are not doing a jazz record [laughs],’” Croker said. “It was perfect. I already knew who I was and I had no inhibitions.”

Bridgewater and Croker co-produced the new album, fully on board without imposing any inhibitions. It’s the first record off her new DDB label (via Sony Masterworks’ imprint OKeh Records), and his third overall. She also sings on Croker’s album, spiking an already jubilant course, in “Moody’s Mood For Love,” “Save Your Love For Me,” and “I Can’t Help It,” a tune Michael Jackson made famous in his monster 1979 hit album, Off The Wall.

She’s joined by other special guest stars, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove and vibraphonist Stefon Harris who do something special on the tracks they play.

Hargrove sings the full lyrics to “Roy Allan” for the first time on Croker’s album. “Roy Allan,” a song Hargrove wrote about his father, first appeared in his 1995 album, Family. Hargrove would sometimes drop the lyrics in shows he’d do but nothing like he’s doing on AfroPhysicist. The trumpeter envelopes the meaning behind those spare lyrics — “You have given me the wisdom and made sure that I know, right from wrong, life in song” — without losing the form of the uplifting sweep of the constantly peaking crescendo. In those lyrics, “The time has come to show you some of my gratitude,” Hargrove softly turns the corners of the melody before letting his trumpet sound the depths. In those trumpet depths, he elaborates on the love he feels for his father’s legacy.

Croker really does a number on Stevie Wonder’s “Visions.” He has Harris underlying the delicate sentiments on vibes. But the meat of the piece is Croker on trumpet, traversing the lines in temperatures of cool to warm. The cover is Croker’s way of singing on his instrument. “In another life, maybe I was a singer. I gave up on that dream a long time ago, but felt I could really convey the meaning of Stevie’s deeply relevant lyric through my horn. His Innervisions album (1973) was a huge influence for me, flow wise.” Croker and Harris capture that flow, gently holding onto the bare outline of Wonder’s song structure, allowing themselves to speak within the silence — a daring feat where most would seek to fill up every crevice with extraneous notes. The overall feel is that of treading lightly on hallowed ground.

Croker’s grandfather is New Orleans master trumpeter Doc Cheatham. But as far as following in tradition goes, the AfroPhysicist is his own man. He intentionally ignored the big city trends to do his own thing. He felt he had to. “What was hot in New York didn’t matter. We were far enough removed that nobody was judging us.”

Croker had his crew with him: drummer Karriem Riggins, keyboardist Sullivan Fortner, acoustic/electric bassist Michael Bowie, guitarist David Gilmore, and wind/reed player Irwin Hall. Together they tried to find different outlets for the music they chose to go over, as well as Croker’s own stuff.

“I’ve always tried to find my own way. I went to Oberlin College instead of Juilliard. Then I went to China. Once there, I opened up — not only to survive, but to investigate what was going on,” Croker explained. “I joined a way-out fusion group led by Alec Haavik, but I also joined a salsa band. Musicians in China don’t have stereotypes. To live well, you played everything.”

On “It’s Not You, It’s Me (But You Didn’t Help),” Croker plays everything: off-beats of an avant-garde/Afro-Cuban collision, furling and unfurling smooth jazz movements crossing into a testy classical upswing. Unbelievably, he’s able to convert his story about a relationship gone wrong musically in the twists and turns of his trumpet with Hall’s alto flute. Truly a triumph in divergence.

Another stylistic conundrum falls in the form of “Light Skinned Beauty.” The music goes into a dramatic upsweep — horns and percussion swelling and bursting — before settling down into a nice, roving groove. R&B hip-hop, rock, big band swing all rolled into one reflect the song’s theme about mixed races. The style shots from all points opening up on a continuous broader scale are purposeful. “Think about the lines of race being blurred... When you first meet someone, it’s hard to tell them who you are in four-five minutes. This song is a statement like that,” Croker said. “So if you see a cutie at the bar and you throw out these three genres — with the same harmony and vibe all the way through, but with stuff changing over the surface — hopefully one line will stick!”

Croker infuses a confident humor in his curlicues and quirks in “Realize.” He bends his blasts and growls with a big, boss heft, as if saying he knows he’s got this, he’s just fooling around a little. The laser tone with the pops at the end of every line make this song stand out.

If you get a mad scientist vibe from Theo Croker’s new album, that’s also very much intentional. He isn’t called the AfroPhysicist for nothing. “My older brother is the one who imparted the nickname AfroPhysicist upon me,” Croker said. “Last spring, I dropped it on Dee Dee and she dug it. She introduced me to an audience that way. They liked it, so it stuck. Maybe it will create a buzz. Look at what artists like Kanye West and Erykah Badu do, changing their genre titles and names to fit different artistic directions. Truthfully, I am a lil’ wild! So the title fits — a crazy person in the basement snatching all these things together.”

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