Theo Croker – Star People Nation


Title: Star People Nation
Artist: Theo Croker
Label: Sony Masterworks
Formats: CD, LP, Digital
Release date: May 17, 2019


Jazz trumpeter Theo Croker continues the success of his two most recent releases—Afro Physicist (2014) and Escape Velocity (2016)—with his ambitious new project, Star People Nation.  The genre-defying album is Croker’s personal exploration of “the everyday rituals of blackness,” fusing elements of African percussion, American jazz, Caribbean reggae and more to reflect the plurality of his identity and Afrodiasporic experiences. As the title suggests, Star People Nation draws upon legends of extraterrestrials that came to Earth, encapsulated in a poem by Justin Emeka (from the liner notes): “Somewhere there’s a star child, gazing in the sky/On the verge of madness, but not really knowing why/They are reaching for a dream, that was poisoned with a lie/They are searching for a song, that might teach them how to fly/Play the songs of a star nation.” Perhaps this is a continuation of Croker’s fascination with Afrofuturists, but whatever the case may be, he never flags in his quest to expand our musical horizons. Continue reading

Theo Croker – Escape Velocity

theo croker escape velocity

Title: Escape Velocity

Artist: Theo Croker

Label: Okeh

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