Released - September 2021
Label - Masterworks
On his brightly-hued sixth album, jazz trumpeter Theo Croker has produced quite possibly his most affecting work to date. Black identity has been at the core of Croker's work since its inception, but the transcendent and confident forms undertaken here present a more hopeful and excited expression of his intimately spiritual jazz fusion. Knowledgeable in the worlds of both hip hop and jazz, as a musician Theo Croker has proven himself an extremely versatile artist not tied to his roots as an Oberlin Conservatory graduate. As a horns arranger for J. Cole and songwriting assistant to Ari Lennox on arguably some of her best songs, he remains steeped in the history of Black music - whilst always approaching it progressively and looking towards a new direction that the art form can take. It is fair to say that on ‘BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST’ Croker has reached the apex of this goal, producing a thematic and futuristic album that aims to raise the joy in everyone who may hear it.
Embracing a wide sonic spectrum, Croker's music has never sounded more experimental. Ebullient polyrhythms mark ‘Lucid Dream’ as one of the record's most forward-thinking moments. The invitation of breakbeat to the frantic horn soloing on 'No More Maybe' marks the most angular music in his discography. The glossier moments like the string and organ littered house cut ‘Happy Feet (For Dancers)’ are absolute treats - jubilantly embracing Croker's love of dance music and showcasing his boundless versatility.
The trap-influenced ‘State of the Union 444 || BLK2THEFUTURE’ with Wyclef Jean, or the astral afrobeat centrepiece ‘Hero Stomp/A Future Past’ never desert the soulful core of his work, making each individual strand of musical code on 'BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST' immensely important to the full genetic blueprint. Psychedelia also appears in the work, as the soft panning synth leads on Ari Lennox collaboration ‘Every Part of Me’ shift like waves between your ears. This hypnotic production helps pacify you to the beauty of the work rather than making you stare into it in awe.
The warped electronics on album opener ‘Soul Call || Vibrate’ mesh wonderfully with the quiet hints of birdcall and nature recordings, blurring the digital and the physical until all that matters is the resulting underlying majesty. Because the project is such a celebratory record, Croker can play with these brighter sounds without coming off as simplistic and in truth the need to find strength within yourself, even as doubt and injustice prevail, is perhaps the most poignant concept his music has delivered. It truly is the hope, happiness and freedom expressed that cause ‘BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST’ to have such a potent effect on you as a listener.
Jazz is often a non-lyrical form of music, and Croker's songwriting collaborators and the context he gives in interviews help you better understand his ideas as the record unfolds. He describes his trumpet playing on the dark, effect-heavy ‘No More Maybe’ as "almost like it’s outside of planet Earth" a sound unequivocally achieved by him as he warps and distorts his performance to an alien level of singularity.
'Hero Stomp || A Future Past’ a song Croker calls the "rite of passage to then receive the strength and power of his ancestors" use reverent recordings of chants and drum playing alongside his own trumpet and instrumental arrangement to receive that very power himself, resulting in one of the most soaring moments of the entire record. Never before has Croker sounded this unburdened, hearty and confident in his performance. His experimentation results in emphasising the mastery of his art a progression from trying to contort his sounds to perfection as he once did.
The quiet moments of the album do not have the immediate presence of the more expansive tracks, but they speak to Croker's ability to create more moody soundscapes with ease. ‘Imperishable Star’ has a repeated horn melody that centres the track as the bass line drips in seductively, causing the song to sigh with the viscosity of melted candle wax. Decadent synth chords make up the bleeding colours of the sunset sky at the top of his sonic paintings and these soft moments act as a respite for Croker and listeners, a place for reflection surrounding the topics that came up in songs prior. It's the connective tissue that holds ‘BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST’ together and the pillars he needs to build all his work atop.
Rarely do albums, jazz or otherwise, contain this level of care, individuality and progress and when 'BLK2LIFE || A FUTURE PAST' contains such immense volumes of all those qualities it is something to be continually celebrated and adored. Theo Croker has bestowed upon us his best work yet, but this is only the beginning of his phenomenal, intimate journey towards his zenith form.