Album + concerts Eating mushrooms led trumpeter Theo Croker during the lockdown to a new album full of symbolism and spiritual awakening. At the same time, his groovy music is very suitable for the dance floor.
The cover of his new album portrays American trumpeter Theo Croker as a sort of spiritual sun god enthroned in the neo-jazz cosmos. The mushrooms next to him? Not just any illustration.
During the lockdown, Croker liked to meditate with psychedelics in nature. Eating magic mushrooms made him feel liberated and meditations became therapeutic experiences, he says. “On my own in nature I just let everything come. That way I could explore my fears and put them to sleep. More than I could ever have done in counseling sessions with therapists. Crying, laughing, feeling the power of my ancestors, this gave me spiritual juice to put into my music.”
Origin, identity and control over your destiny are themes on the new, sixth album BLK2life//A Future Past by trumpeter, composer and producer Theo Croker (36). An album full of symbolism and spiritual awakening, with titles such as ‘4 Knowledge’ and ‘Soul Call’, and a sober, extremely danceable ‘feel’ at the same time. Jazz is downright groovy and electronic, from modern jazz funk to sensual R&B and neo-soul, in the same way that trumpeter Roy Hargrove, who died in 2018, brought jazz to the dance floor in the 1990s with his band RH Factor.
“Man! I devoured his albums in high school,” Croker shouts through the screen from a hotel room in Belgrade. “He was so versatile. And he made me see that it was okay to do more than old swing, play without a suit and tie and mix styles.” Or well, he sees it more as removing the barriers to genres that the music industry has placed.
Ancient Eastern culture taught me how infantile Western culture can be, without spirituality or humanity
After staying home for a year and a half, he is back on tour, Theo Croker is very happy about it. “Playing live, interacting with the audience is why I’m on this planet.” He gives a remarkable number of shows in Europe – four in the Netherlands alone. When the pandemic started, he moved all his concerts to the autumn of 2021. “This finally feels like normal again,” Croker sighs. Staying at home felt like drug addiction for a music nomad like him. “Now after a few weeks, my body seems to understand what it is like to travel non-stop.”
At the family home in Florida, Croker, grandson of trumpeter Doc Cheatham, initially got “completely detached” from music. “The obsession with music and being online can be huge, I’ve surfed every wave that passed. After ten years on the road, I had to put energy into personal growth, friendships and the bond with my family.”
Then he pondered the question of why he makes music. It first led to a business clean-up: the divestment of music deals and the establishment of their own label. “As an independent artist with my own label, I’m in much better shape now.” He then tinkered with new music in his home studio.
Croker thinks big. Ever since he went to China at the age of 22 for a job as a resident artist in a Shanghai jazz club. The seven years there are decisive for the musician he is today. “I didn’t fall under any particular genre of music. People came night after night to listen to me, as an artist. Chinese audiences were completely open to the music, with no expectations.” China opened its eyes anyway. “What a different country than I learned in school in America that feels superior. The ancient Eastern culture taught me how infantile Western culture can be, without spirituality or humanity.”
Through singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, who saw him perform there, he made a jump back in America with a major label. Afro Physicist (2014) was a decent debut, but it was his album Escape Velocity (2016) that made his name. Timeless, but at the same time very much in the moment jazz, rhythmically alert skimming past soul jazz and funk.
The groove jazz on his new, self-produced record may have been made last year in confusing times – pandemic, protests – but it is also light and uplifting, with names such as rapper Wyclef Jean, R&B singer Ari Lennox, drummer Kassa Overall. In the dreamy ‘Anthem’ jazz nestor Gary Bartz sounds, a nice connection with the jazz past. But then Croker shakes his head. He thinks jazz is “a shitty name that doesn’t do the music justice”. “It’s an incomplete, insulting name for art created by black people. And it also immediately puts my music in a hard-to-digest box: music for the museum, which is not popular among young people. I make black music, it’s the rhythms of our black culture. The foundation of all music.”