Theo Croker ‘Escape Velocity’ (OKeh) 5/5

theo-crokerTheo Croker is a Florida born trumpet player, one time student of Gary Bartz, Donald Byrd and Marcus Belgrave, and is mentored by Dee Dee Bridgewater. And he is also the grandson of Cab Calloway trumpeter, Doc Cheatham. So the inevitable was bound to happen. Unknown to myself until recently, Theo has just released his new album, Escape Velocity, on the Sony owned Okeh record label, via DDB Productions, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s management and production company.
Theo has had quite an interesting career for someone still so young, which has included a seven-year stint working in Shanghai, China after graduation from university, playing in various jazz venues across the city. And it was in China where he was to meet his mentor and current boss Dee Dee Bridgewater, who convinced Theo to branch out on his own, especially writing new material and to embrace his own musical influences within compositions.
Escape Velocity is actually his fourth release, but probably his most accessible record. Previous albums have utilised the services of many established players such as Stefon Harris, Roy Hargrove and Karriem Riggins, but this album includes his own touring band DVRK FUNK, who are also Dee Dee Bridgewater’s live group, which includes Michael King on keyboards including piano, Hammond and Rhodes, Eric Wheeler on bass and drummer Kassa Overall. Additionally, Irwin Hall is on alto, bass clarinet and flute duties and Antony Ware is on baritone sax, and finally, Femi Temowo joins Ben Eunson to add some vibrant guitar touches.

Musically, this is a very fresh album that includes some modern drum programming and audio sampling, but this is still very much an outright jazz album – just a very contemporary one. Croker may use a wah-wah effect at times on his trumpet, but his playing is virtuosic and natural, displaying his obvious hard bop background, but also Theo’s other influences from afro beat, funk and Latin.

Many of the album 15 tracks are actually quite short, with nine of the set being under four minutes in length – so never a dull moment. But being critical, maybe longer arrangements would provide the band with more time to explore some of the themes examined here, but desiring more is always better than the opposite, and some of the shorter pieces do blend into each other to form a fluid, evolving album.

Personal highlights include the Fela Kuti meets J Dilla mishmash of ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’, featuring chant-like vocals from the band, the slightly boogie-ish ‘Real Episode’ and the infectious ‘Transcend’, with its excellent use of rhythm. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s influence is evident with the fantastic vocal version of ‘Love from the Sun’. Dee Dee has had a long history with the song, which she recorded with Norman Connors on his 1974 album of the same name, but also on the more popular, upbeat and funky Roy Ayers version (from Virgo Red), but it’s also on Dee Dee’s legendary Japanese ‘Afro Blue’ album. Great mentoring, as this is probably the obvious DJ cut here.

And although it isn’t documented, I think the album is produced by Theo and the band, and here, they have to be commended. Sonically the album is strong, the song arrangements support the overall holistic nature of the set and the playing is lively, dynamic and relevant to each track. Again, this is another example of excellent young Jazz musicians making great new jazz music.

I can’t really find anything negative to say about the album, except that I hope there’s a vinyl release, as it’s currently only on CD and in digital formats.

Damian Wilkes