May 17, 2014
Theo Croker’s musical journey may seem traditional, but it has a truly a 21st century twist.
The grandson of New Orleans trumpet legend Doc Cheatham, Croker’s parents were music fans, not music professionals. After his grandfather’s death in 1997, Theo decided that he wanted to make music a career, and so his parents supported their son’s ambitions, sending him to the Douglas Anderson School of Arts, where he became an artist in residence at the Ritz Theatre with its big band. Upon graduation, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, drawn by Dr. Donald Byrd and a faculty of jazz legends including Gary Bartz. Croker won the Presser Music Foundation Award in 2006 and used the money to fund a debut album of original compositions, The Fundamentals.
The twist? To hone his craft, Theo headed for China, where he spent the better part of six years playing six nights a week, several sets a night at clubs in Shanghai and the surrounding area. This provided him invaluable time to “woodshed” his playing, and he emerged ready for bigger and better things.
Croker met singer Dee Dee Bridgewater in October of 2009 during the Shanghai Jazz Festival, where he was playing in the big band that backed her. The two hit it off at an after-party jam and soon they were in discussions about recording an album.
The result is AfroPhysicist, out this week on Dee Dee Bridgewater's DDB Records via Sony Masterworks' imprint OKeh Records. Croker says that he did not want to make a “genre record” and the new CD accomplishes that well. The music is unmistakably jazz, but it draws heavily on the soul, hip-hop and blues to which Croker grew up listening. The core group of keyboardist Sullivan Fortner, wind and reed man Irwin Hall, drummer Karriem Riggins, acoustic/electric bassist Michael Bowie and guitarist David Gilmore, is more than up to the musical challenges that Theo’s compositions throw down. Theo’s musical hero Roy Hargrove guests on one track; vibes master Stefon Harris is on another.
AfroPhysicist includes three vocals sung by Ms. Bridgewater, each from different eras and genres, and all re-imagined in bold strokes: "Moody's Mood For Love" (the classic James Moody instrumental vocalized by Eddie Jefferson in the `50s, then by George Benson with Patti Austin in the `80s); "Save Your Love For Me," (made famous by Nancy Wilson with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1962); and "I Can't Help It," originally introduced by Michael Jackson on 1979's Off the Wall, and flipped here into a sizzling, chattering Afro-Cuban whirlwind. Theo and his touring band will back Ms. Bridgewater on tour dates this spring and summer, as well as playing sets on their own.
Podcast 426 is my conversation with Theo, including musical selections from the new CD, “The Fundamentals”, “Realize”, “I Can’t Help It” and “It's Not You It's Me (But You Didn’t Help).”