Midway through June, trumpeter Theo Croker worked four nights at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard behind Star People Nation, his third release on DDB, Dee Dee Bridgewater’s Sony-licensed imprint. The self-produced, elaborately programmatic recital ran Croker “upwards of $50,000,” topping the $28,000 he spent on its 2017 predecessor, Escape Velocity, produced by drummer Kassa Overall. Both albums comprise Croker originals that reference and meld elements from swing, postbop, hip-hop, soul, funk, and different West African strains; on both, he frames his golden tone and harmonically erudite lines with layers of textured keyboards, ethereal synths, bespoke samples, polyrhythmic drum beats, and insinuating voices in ways that illuminate their melodic core. The sensibility matches what Nicholas Payton—who in 1996 recorded a two-trumpet album with Croker’s grandfather, Doc Cheatham—might describe as “Black American Music,” or B.A.M.
“Who doesn’t thrive off controversy?…If you don’t, you’re not comfortable with yourself. A Love Supreme isn’t a museum piece.”
Only mics and amps were plugged in at the Jazz Standard. “I don’t need any bells and whistles in real time,” Croker explained a few days before. “The intensity of the music speaks for itself.” That description pinpoints the ambience of the first night’s first set, featuring pianist Michael King, bassist Russell Hall, and drummer Michael Ode. Croker wore a black wool hat over his dreadlocks, tan Spliffy jeans, a Jean-Michel Basquiat-logoed Comme des Garçons sweatshirt, and tennis shoes, no socks.