Trumpet player Theo Croker's new album, Escape Velocity, arrives unchecked and un-filtered. It doesn't attempt to fit a single specific musical category, but draws upon the first principle of jazz: to merge and interpret history, styles and ideas and create a unique sound. Escape Velocity (DDB Records/OKeh), due May 6th, and featuring his band DVRK FUNK, is Croker's second album since returning from China where he lived and worked for nearly a decade.
DVRK FUNK includes Anthony Ware on tenor saxophone and flute, pianist Michael King, guitarist Ben Eunson, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Kassa Overall. Of the group's name Croker explains: "Darkness has been labeled as a negative thing but the outer reaches of space are dark. Where life starts is dark. Dark is an endless possibility, infinite and unknown. That's what we're about."
It is clear from the opening notes of songs like "Raise Your Vibrations" that this is Croker's world. The glistening glow of keyboards and cymbals float around him as he establishes the band's intentions from mission control. "It's a summons for the listeners to open up their minds and to let them vibrate for the rest of the album."
Songs on the album range from spiritual to upbeat, and are sometimes invested with a commitment to with current events. For example: "We Can't Breathe," Croker observes, "That's about Eric Garner. That's about Trayvon. That's about reflecting everything that is going on in the world, but 'It's Gonna Be Alright' is the response to that. No matter what we deal with, remember it's going to be alright." An anthem of succinct horn lines and joyous vocals, Croker's message carries notes of both optimism and melancholy.
"A Call to the Ancestors" and "Meditations" are the results of communing with the spirits. "A lot of people assume that meditation is very calm, a quiet very clear thing," says Croker. "But it can also have a lot of turbulence. When I get to a good point in meditation, I feel like I am traversing through dimensions." Michael King takes advantage of his opportunity to stride across the piano, digging up a rapid sprint over the pounding percussion.
"Love From The Sun" is an homage to and a collaboration with Dee Dee Bridgewater. The renowned jazz diva, who has served as a mentor to Croker for nearly a decade, revisits a song which she first recorded in 1974. Here Croker overlays a live recording he performed with Bridgewater with a new studio performance from the inimitable vocalist.
The organ-driven pop of "Changes" is loaded with rhythmic energy and cosmic textures, a swelling culmination for a telekinetic band. Marching off in style, DVRK FUNK settles down with "RaHspect (Amen)," a tempered farewell that pairs Croker with King's responsive piano.
"We're always pushing our music as far as we can push it," Croker says of the album. "We're not changing the game, we are creating a new version of the game that hopefully is all our own."
For anyone looking to learn the rules, put your headphones on.
Theo Croker is a trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader whose powerful and eclectic take on modern jazz pays respect to the tradition of the music while moving the genre forward.
A native of Leesburg, Florida, Croker is the grandson of the late great jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham. Croker began playing trumpet at age 11 after hearing Cheatham play in New York City, and by his teens was studying music formally at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville followed by the Music Conservatory at Oberlin College.
Croker's musical training has taken him all over the world including Shanghai, China where he took up residency at the House of Blues and refined his style. Shanghai is also where Croker met his mentor, Dee Dee Bridgewater, whom he performs with often.
Escape Velocity is Croker's second album with OKeh Records. His debut, AfroPhysicist, was released in 2014.