are curious about the new breed of jazz trumpeters on the block,
lend your ears to the meticulously composed music of Theo Croker,
who counts Wynton Marsalis (whose affection for classical music
requires no apology) among his influences.
us what he’s all about at the 39th edition of the Montreal
International Jazz Festivalthat uncharacteristically
produced far too many occasions where a group of outstanding musicians
would get together – usually the day before the concert
– and demonstrate their extraordinary improvisational skills
on compositions (the polite descriptive) comprised of no more
than a short but catchy sequence of poppish notes that would repeat
(loop-like) for the duration of the song. To mostly unbridled
applause, the gifted musician would methodically (dexterously)
engage the sequence by flipping it, turning it on its side, bouncing,
scrambling, chopping, and eviscerating it before reassembling
the phrase and passing it on to the next brilliant musician who
would perform the same acrobatics. String together seven such
tracks multiplied by ten minutes, mixed in with lengthy explanations
of the joy and privilege the musicians experience in each other’s
esteemed presence, and in no time a hard day’s night’s
work is done -- and on to the next stop on the summer breezes
of the jazz festival season.
the Marsalis brothers dares to suggest that when jazz and pop
are mixed, jazz suffers.
the time the Theo Croker concert came due (on day six of the ten
day festival) I was starving for something more challenging, and
Croker and his dynamic group delivered the goods. Croker, wiser
than his 33 years, argues through his music that composition and
improvisation (the unequal twin pillars of jazz,) do not have
to be mutually exclusive. His relatively small discography, topped
off by his latest, Escape Velocity, stands as an eloquent
statement of his position, which doesn’t stand in the way
of his creative flights into dissonance or abrupt shifts in moods,
some of which seem to run roughshod or contradict the music’s
original thematic intent.
of Croker’s compositions begin with extended, meticulously
composed melodies, very often augmented harmonically by the piano
or the saxophone. Where Croker’s music takes an unusual
and very refreshing turn is the time allotted to the hard-earned
art of composition. He does not allow his musicians to improvisationally
exhaust an idea before returning to the main themes: instead,
in respect to the value he attaches to composition, he structures
his music so the main themes and their permutations are allowed,
on multiple occasions, to bleed into the improvisation to the
giddy effect that one isn’t sure where the one begins and
the other leaves off. For the listener, these strategic returns
of the leitmotif serve as touchstone or anchor, allowing the listener
to pause and reboot before resuming what can sometimes be a demanding
voyage. However insinuating are Croker’s striking melodies,
the manner in which he plays off them are often unpredictable.
He can be almost 1950ish one moment playing the straight and narrow,
and then abstract the next, sometimes working in and around, pounding
into shape a single note for a 30 second stretch, as if purging
himself of yet another "day in the life" in the post-truth
gets excellent mileage from his saxophonist Irwin Hall, and when
they play together the concept and voicing are so tightly interwoven
acoustic space becomes almost palpable. That Croker is a fan of
Radio Head doesn’t come as a surprise in light of his penchant
for stretched out harmonies that delight the ear on both sides
of the serpentine.
shaping of his very particular sound and vision, a nod goes to
his highly creative percussionist Kassa Overall who, in the spirit
of Aldo Romano, finds on his drum kit a melodic component while
keeping the beat, just as the bassist Eric Wheeler’s love
of counter time is perfectly attuned to the mood and thrust of
the main melody that is always on call.
review goes to the pianist Michael King, who importunately undermines
his abilities by banging instead of playing his instrument --
especially at the high end of the ivories. If the goal or climax
of any solo is ecstasy, epiphany, nirvana, that end-game is not
necessarily a function of scaling the instrument to its maximum.
On most occasions, the high note is just a high note, just as
being high on life doesn’t mean you have to conquer Mount
Everest. There were simply too many occasions when King was banging
the daylights out of keys in the highest register (between the
80th and 88th key). When music achieves radiance, it is consequent
to sustained mental effort and not physical prowess.
his young years, Croker has already put his signature on music
comprised of resilient melodies and uncompromising journeys that
beg to be repeated. When he’s in the zone, he recalls David
Binney (Welcome to Life) at his best, and the Ingrid
Jensen concept album entitled At Sea.
is a dedicated musician on a mission who knows what he wants in
terms of balance and the give and take between composition and
improvisation. His fresh approach to jazz combines a deep respect
for the tradition while being his own person in the present, its
dawns and darknesses.
that by the time Theo Croker retires his instrument, he will have
added significantly to the ever expanding catalog of jazz.