You really have to beat people over the head with it, huh? The few publications that reviewed this pulled all the stops: constant mentions of Theo Croker’s lineage to Doc Cheatham (grandfather) and Donald Byrd (mentor); sort of like how Ravi Coltrane can’t shake off the spectre of his father (but not as bad as that). But all of that still didn’t generate any hype: for jazz musicians these days, you have to be playing on hip-hop records (by way of Kamasi Washinton – whose The Epic is probably the best comparison, given sources of influence and diversity of sound – Robert Glasper), or win Grammys (by way of Esperanza Spalding… or Robert Glasper again).
Whatever: I heard an incredibly ambitious record, one that demands your full attention and that demands to be taken as a whole. Fifteen cuts that span multiple styles, ie. the first part of “The Right Time” has a drum-beat befitting a rock song; “A Call to the Ancestors” (immediately after) heads briefly to Africa. (My first thought was different iterations of Davis’ fusion period for both.) The song titles are indicative: Croker’s really interested in spirituality and space, and near the middle of the album, “We Can’t Breathe”, explicitly about the death of Eric Garner, and then the response: “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” maybe a conscious allusion to Kendrick Lamar’s fucking perfect song from the year before. The album starts off well, with the band treating the words to “Raise Your Vibrations” with reverence, and Theo Croker playfully stuttering the main theme of “Transcend” immediately after. But it really gets going on “This Could Be (for the Travelling Soul)”: Eric Wheeler (bass) and Kassa Overall (drums) introduce one of the album’s best grooves (it’ll get your head bopping), before Theo Croker and saxophonist Anthony Ware soar over top with the harmonized theme and their solos. And then the highlights keep coming: “In Orbit” shifts gears, with keyboards reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Sextant; “No Escape From Bliss” has the starry keyboards and nudging rhythm that recalls the languidity of Sun Ra’s Lanquidity; Eric Wheeler supplies da funk on “Real Episode”; Theo Croker quiets down for a soulful close. And Croker, taking on production duties (whereas Dee Dee Bridgewater produced his last, who features on a cover of “Love in the Sun,” which she did years back), adds appropriate touches where necessary (ie. “In Orbit”), but also adds the tiniest and most harrowing detail into “We Can’t Breathe”: the sound of someone gasping for air almost 2-minutes in that gets buried into the other instruments.
Since you really have to beat people over the head with it, so here: one of the best jazz albums of 2016. It’s on Spotify; go listen – what do you have to lose?