Afro Physicist, trumpeter Theo Croker’s third album as a leader and his debut on Dee Dee Bridgewater’s DDB imprint and the Sony-owned OKeh brand, showcases him in a context that might be called “retro-progressive.” Many of its stylistic elements have a distinct ’70s-era flavor, but the way Croker mashes them together and then tops everything off with his straightforward but imaginative soloing marks him as an avatar of genre-defying postmodernism. “Realize,” for instance, blazes no new trails—rock/jazz/funk fusionists staked out this territory at least 35 years ago—but Croker stutters, slurs and wah-wahs up a storm while never obscuring the melody or descending into self-parody or snark. “Light Skinned Beauty” begins with a power-rock intro then progresses through movements propelled first by throbbing urban funk and then by lightly dancing swing, above which Croker fires out solos in a warm, Miles-ian timbre toughened by his linear thrust amid the shape-shifting aural landscape.
“It’s Not You, It’s Me (But You Didn’t Help)” is a breezy Latin-tinged swinger, sprightly and inviting despite the cynical title. Roy Hargrove takes a rare guest vocal on “Roy Allan,” dedicated to his father, and Bridgewater also makes a few appearances: On the breezy, funk-lite updating of “Save Your Love for Me,” she delivers the famous Buddy Johnson lyrics with tough-edged resoluteness; “Moody’s Mood for Love” finds her mining both impish humor and autumnal nostalgia from her rasp-seasoned timbre. On “I Can’t Help It,” a Stevie Wonder composition originally recorded by Michael Jackson, Croker’s arrangement is fulsome and variegated (and again enlivened with that “Spanish tinge”), dancing and twirling with an agility rivaling Jackson’s in his prime. He quicksteps through an appropriately jubilant, gravity-defying solo, and Bridgewater summons all of the suppleness and tonal dexterity for her vocals and scat interlude.