Title: Escape Velocity
Artist: Theo Croker
Formats: CD, MP3
Release Date: May 6, 2016
Trumpeter Theo Croker has quite the musical pedigree. He is Doc Cheatham’s grandson, studied at Oberlin Conservatory, has performed all over the world, and has taken on a mentor in the great jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Despite being a man of the world, however, Croker’s musical ambitions are interstellar. This is immediately clear from a cursory glance at the track listing for Escape Velocity, Croker’s 5th release, which features titles such as “Raise Your Vibrations,” “In Orbit,” and “Love From the Sun.” Following in a long line of celestial jazz purveyors, including Sun Ra and Melvin Van Peebles, Croker has crafted a set of solid, if not always out-of-this-world, instrumental numbers.
The group’s sound lies somewhere in the space between jazz, funk, and neo-soul throughout most of Escape Velocity, with soundscapes consisting of both acoustic and electronic sounds. Perhaps the defining mark of Croker’s style is the electronic alteration of acoustic instruments — the album’s opener “Raise Your Vibrations” features trumpet lines laden with delay to match the transcendent poetry that opens the album and “This Could Be” opens with what sounds like an acoustic bass run through a pitch-shifter. “Love from the Sun,” (featuring Dee Dee Bridgewater) is filled with synthesized sounds and funky (possibly sampled) breakbeats and Croker playing a far-out a wah-wah trumpet solo. While the group’s foundation consists of acoustic rather than synthesized sounds, Crocker and company play conventional instruments in innovative ways.
The cuts on Escape Velocity predominantly explore metaphysical territory (for instance, “A Call to the Ancestors” and “Meditation”), ultimately attempting to encapsulate the more spiritual aspects of life in music. These pieces’ moods range from darkness (the political “We Can’t Breathe,” a musical commentary on Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police) to light (“It’s Gonna Be Alright”) to paradox (“No Escape from Bliss”). Much of the conceptual work that Croker does on this record takes place in his arrangements and textures — each song contains a hand-selected collection of instruments and players, made up primarily of Croker’s core group DVRK FUNK featuring Anthony Ware on tenor and flute, Michael King on piano, Eric Wheeler on bass, and drummer Kassa Overall. This ensemble facilitates the albums’ delicate conceptual work, making musical the abstract ideas that inform the tracks’ titles.
Releases of this kind often try to tell listeners how hip the band is, but, true to both good writing and good composition, Croker shows them. This is modern funk-inspired jazz that doesn’t rely on trite musical cliches to showcase the musicians’ hip sensibilities — rather, it feels fresh because the musicians are exploring their unique musical voices. Escape Velocity is a great contribution to this year’s slate of new releases, perhaps the most simultaneously challenging and genuinely hip jazz release since Kamasi Washington’s 2015 The Epic (although Escape Velocity is of a smaller scale and, therefore, much more digestible on first listen) and will certainly take its listeners on a journey of sounds, moods, and perhaps even space and vibrations.
Reviewed by Matthew Alley