Theo Croker is talking to SJF while in a cab on his way to the airport. The 30-year-old trumpeter is shortly to catch a plane back home to the USA after a whirlwind press tour of Europe. After press junkets on the continent, he’s been in central London – where he was interviewed by Gilles Peterson for the broadcaster’s BBC6 radio show – doing promotion for his new album, ‘Escape Velocity,’ which has been earning good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
Along with Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott, Terrace Martin and others, Florida-born Croker – whose grandfather was the legendary New Orleans-style horn-blower, Doc Cheatham – is a leading light in a new wave of American jazz that is attracting younger listeners and blurring the boundaries between itself and other genres. There’s a deep spiritual vibe to Croker’s music plus plenty of soulfulness and traces of hip-hop too.
Croker, who studied at the world-renowned Oberlin College in Ohio under such illustrious tutors such as the late Donald Byrd, Marcus Belgrave and Gary Bartz – all legendary names in the jazz field – went on to hone his skills in Shanghai, of all places, where he worked as a jobbing musician for several years. After a couple of indie albums, Croker caught the attention of singer, Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was impressed by the young man with a horn and promptly signed him to her own imprint, DDB Records, via Sony’s reactivated Okeh label.
His debut for Dee Dee’s company was 2014’s ‘Afro Physicist,’ a promising platter that proved the launch pad for this year’s ‘Escape Velocity,’ which looks likely to put the Leesburg native into a whole new orbit. Here he shares his thoughts on his new album, the state of jazz, working with Dee Dee Bridgewater, and his experiences living and working in China to SJF’s Charles Waring…
What’s the response been to the new album?
It’s been fantastic. I think people are really able to access the music though it’s still on a high level and raising people’s vibrations and they’re understanding the message. London has always been a very aggressive consumer of new music and I’m delighted and so happy.
What’s the story behind ‘Escape Velocity’? Is there a concept behind your sound?
Yeah, most definitely. I wanted to tell a story and make a soundtrack, kind of like a movie. I wanted to tell the story of my journey through spirituality and growing into a more mature person through experience of late. I wanted to do that musically but I want to do it in a way that the listeners are prompted to explore their own spirituality through the process; like their own inner self, so I just didn’t want it to be like, here’s my story listen. I wanted to unlock your journey inside of you and bring awareness to the path that we’re all on as spiritual beings.
How did the music take shape in the studio?
We had a lot of sessions and worked on it piece-by-piece for a year. We certainly didn’t want to rush it but we started three days of recording songs different ways all together, with some overdubbing, because I didn’t really know the sound that I ended up having. I knew what I wanted in my head but I didn’t exactly know how to achieve that. This was my first time creating an album from the production standpoint, so we just recorded as many different possibilities as possible. We did that in New York and then a few weeks later, I headed out to Vienna with the co-producer, my drummer Kassa (Overall), and that’s when we started to select what we wanted and the different parts that we wanted to work on. We did that for three days, narrowing it down and then another couple of sessions later, in Vienna, was when we started to edit and create sonically the vibe that we wanted, which was moving towards the sound and the mix thing.
You took your time…
Yeah (laughs), and the more we did that, and worked on the songs, the more that song would stick out and become this own thing. So a lot of times we had to go back into the studio to redo some of the other songs because they worked on that same level: we had to go back and said man, now we’ve got this, we’ve got to make these other two that good. So it was a lot of starting over.
So you did lots of different versions of the songs?
I think the song ‘In Orbit’ on the album was the eighth version of it. The first version was completely different but it just ended up as this massive thing. The album version is actually just an excerpt of the whole eight-minute piece that we were playing. In the spring, I ended up changing a lot of the horn parts and layering, saxophones, flute and bass clarinets because I wanted a more orchestral sound on the songs. Instead of getting a lot of people, I just kept it the core of the band, and thought of how many different ways I could use the people in my band. So, I’m playing keyboards and a lot of stuff. The pianist (Michael King) is playing congas and a lot of the percussion, because he’s also a great drummer. After that, I started mixing with Kassa and Matthew Sim in the summer. I stayed involved with everything and didn’t send it off to anybody. We just did it as we could throughout our schedule altogether, so we were always in the room all together. Sometimes me and Kassa would do things on our laptops but it was just a long process and then we got it mastered. So it almost took a whole year to create the actual music. If I could have afforded it and had the luxury I think I would have done it all in a straight three-week period but it doesn’t really work like that: it doesn’t give you time to grow while you’re doing it. Every time I create an album, I try it to be a learning experience and I want to push myself and to try to do something I can’t or don’t know how to do. And that’s the whole fun part for me – not going to the studio to play something I’ve already worked out.
How does it compare then to your previous album, ‘Afro Physicist’? Did it evolve differently?
It was kind of similar in the learning process in that there was a curve. A lot of that music had already been written and workshopped and I already knew what I needed from the band. But I wasn’t prepared on ‘Afro Physicist’ the first go-round for what I needed to do as a feature because I wasn’t prepared to feature myself, I was going to use a lot of singers and I was going to do what a lot of the cats do – like (Robert) Glasper and Terrace Martin – and feature different singers on my album. But after we did that, me and Dee Dee took a step back from it, and she told me, know, it needs to feature you. Let’s get rid of all singers and go back in and filling everything that was singing with trumpet. That was a whole learning curve too but it was a little more traditional in approach.
You use samples and technology on this new album but how important is it to preserve the jazz tradition?
I think the only way to preserve any tradition is to simply be knowledgeable of it and put a message or whatever you’re doing to move it forward. So if I’m standing on the foundations then I’m preserving it and I’m always expanding my knowledge on that foundation of the tradition. I don’t know all of it and I’m constantly, especially from all the musicians, being turned on to new things about it and finding holes in my knowledge and trying to fill them in so that when I become an elder I have something to share. But everything that we used as a sample, we actually created ourselves. We would record things and then when we went into the editing phase, we would open up another take and create a sample from what we made and then put that on top of what we played live. We didn’t pull anything from anybody else, it was all completely organic – even some of the voices and vocals came from my voice messages. Everything is organic and all of our playing – solos – is all live takes; we didn’t piece together solos or anything like that. If a solo was played, we kept that, all the rawness and the vibe of it. John Coltrane overdubbed on ‘A Love Supreme’ and Miles Davis overdubbed too. I think most traditionalists and jazz musicians make live recordings and if you don’t want to take advantage of the technology, then don’t use it.
You’ve got to reflect the age that you’re living in as a musician…
That’s a theme for me. And jazz has to do that too. Jazz has been turned into this traditionalist, throwback thing and that’s never what it was. People like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were always considering their music contemporary and looked at keeping it contemporary. If Coltrane had lived into the ’70s, damn right he would have used a Fender Rhodes. (Laughs). Clifford Brown too. Could you imagine Clifford Brown playing with Parliament? (Laughs). And Stevie? You don’t think Stevie Wonder would have called Clifford Brown? It’s silly to think otherwise and idolise the era they were from as the purist period.
That’s right. People think that jazz belongs in a museum really rather than being a living thing…
For some people, their agenda is to be a traditionalist and stay in that period so they need to be in a museum in order to legitimise their vision of it and their own beliefs. I want to stay in the line of the tradition like Miles and Trane where they continually stay contemporary.
Yes, they were innovators as well, and didn’t standstill.
Yeah, they were ahead of it most of the time.
You’re signed to Dee Dee Bridgewater’s imprint – how did that happen and how did you association with her begin?
I met her in Shanghai when I was living there. I was playing in the big band that was backing her and I remember I didn’t have a solo because I kind of forced my way onto the gig. Everybody else got a little piece but then she said I want to hear you play, and I said alright, and then she pulled out ‘Tenderly,’ the ballad. There’s a trumpet solo in there, which I played, and after that we clicked. After rehearsal we hung out and she decided after her show to come down to my show that I had – it was like an after party – and sat in with us and we went on for about 90 minutes, which was already over our 45 minute-deep-set. We shared a lot of musical consciousness together. One of the tunes we played was (Miles Davis’s) ‘All Blues’ and we were playing together. Dee Dee is not into that ‘my-moment, your-moment’ thing. She wanted to have me play with her literally, like an exchange, and we did that. We stayed in touch and the relationship developed quickly. She came to Shanghai again a few months later and heard me play in two of my other groups and somebody else’s group, all straight ahead jazz, and invited me to take her to lunch the next day. And at lunch she offered to sign me and produce me. She said that I needed to get this music out to the world and that she felt the time was coming when people would be open to things that weren’t so traditional and straight ahead and that I needed to be involved in that. And she wanted to show me how to do it.
That’s a wonderful collaboration and she performs on your new album one song with you, the Roy Ayers/Norman Connors’ tune, ‘Love From The Sun.’ What inspired it?
The first version I heard of that was Roy Ayers, when he featured Dee Dee (pictured with Theo, left) on it also. I grew up with that song and didn’t realise it was Dee Dee. It’s crazy. You grow up as a child hearing this and now she’s somebody you can call (laughs). Then I heard the Norman Connors version. And then we were in Japan together at Tower Records. We were just looking through CDs and because we were in town they had reprinted the first album that Dee Dee ever did actually, it wasn’t on her imprint or one of the major imprints, it was on a small Japanese label (‘Afro Blue’ on Trio Records). She’s 23, and on that record, she sings Love From The Sun as a duo with Sir Roland Hanna. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music. It’s just so heartbreakingly beautiful so I started badgering her to pull it out when we played live. We did it with an arrangement that was a combination of her version with the Norman Connors one and then, of course, the Roy Ayers section which is upbeat funk.
Yeah, so when it came time to make the record, Dee Dee said just go do your thing, I really want you to do this. Just call me if you need me. I really wanted to have her on it in a way that would be good for her and show people her in a different light because she is one of the most versatile artists I’ve ever seen; just how she can fit into any situation without sacrificing her integrity or artistry.
How did you go about it then?
Me and Kassa started experimenting and I knew we wanted to do ‘Love From The Sun.’ She agreed to do it as long as I found something hip to do it with. We had played it in Spain one day on Thanksgiving in 2014 as an encore. It was a really great show where the energy was really high. We were literally all in tears after that show, it was such a beautiful one and that night was very special. We did ‘Love From The Sun’ just like you hear on the record. We had an intro and she sang it twice and then it ended, just like that. The sound man had recorded it so we took that and Kassa said let me produce this one, I’ve got an arrangement. I was said go for it. He came back with this remix of that live sample with the drum track that you hear on it. Dee Dee’s voice is there but it’s muffled and filtered out. Everything’s filtered out and sounding like a Flying Lotus track. After I heard that I said this is great, what we should do with this is, we should just build layers on top of it. So what I decided to do with that in the first place was to keep the ensemble in the jazz approach to tradition with things being spontaneous, improvised and live. Then I said let’s book a date and bring the whole band in and Dee Dee and let’s record ourselves playing it on top of the sample. So that’s what we did but we didn’t tell Dee Dee that. We muted it for her because she was just singing along with us playing live. And then we took it into the booth and started putting filters and basically took off all the studio stuff that we did, the live takes, and started filtering things and blending it in with the samples ‘cos we had re-sampled ourselves again. Then we just placed her voice right on top of it. So, a lot of the effects that you hear from the voice, the background harmonies, that’s all from the original live recording. That’s not stuff that we added to her studio performance. So it really turned out to be this really organic-sounding produced beat or dance track which still has all these organic elements in it.
You wouldn’t realise that from listening to it.
Well, we didn’t want to be obvious. If you know that and listen to it again it brings a whole other layer of magic to it. We just recreated in the studio what happened live and then blended them together. So you hear a harmony muted trumpet and that’s from the original recording and then you’ll hear this little piano lick going on and that’s from the live show. So that track’s very special to me.