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The New Cool: Theo Croker brings out the stars

Photo by Craig Carpenter, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Theo Croker pours his soul into his horn on Star People Nation.

Still in his mid-30s, Theo Croker has become a jazz trumpet star. His new album, Star People Nation, puts his horn solidly in the spotlight, that instrument acting as an extension of the artist himself. The result is a confident, modern trumpet record that builds on tradition while sounding fully of the 21st century.

Growing up at the height of hip-hop popularity, Croker found himself drawn to the "jazzier" material of Guru and Outkast. His own family history connects directly to long history of jazz, his grandfather Doc Cheatham played trumpet with Chick Webb and others in the 1920s and built a career that lasted into the late '90s. For Croker, it's all of the same cloth.

Over seven years spent playing jazz in China, Croker developed a deeper understanding of how interconnected all music is. "People flocked to see live music of all kinds in China, it was something that wasn't currated by the state," Croker told Build Series in New York. "We're getting back to realizing what it's all about."

For this new collection of music, Croker went for both the spontaneity of live performance with produced and sampled sounds, often using clips of previously played efforts by his bandmates. "I wanted to keep the real organic jazz aspect" of the music, he says. Producing the album himself, Croker manages to get the most from both electronic and human aspect of these songs.

The sounds of Star People Nation hit you immediately with modern production and treated vocals, building off Croker's similar successful fusions on previous albums Afro Physicist and Escape Velocity. The band quickly settles into an acoustic groove, with the trumpet acting as the guiding star.

The leader's own vocals get sampled in the lead track and elsewhere, but guest singers and rappers also appear. Rose Gold offers her dreamy, soulful delivery on the second track, "Getaway Gold," with Jamaican reggae star Chronixx closing out Star People Nation's concise 43-minute running time on "Understand Yourself."

Former Croker producer Kassa Overall teams with Eric Harland for a dual drum collaboration on "Alkebulan," and pianist ELEW (frequent Wynton Marsalis collaborator Eric Lewis) adds exciting acoustic piano to the straight ahead number "The Messenger."

Mostly, though, we hear Croker's quintet shining through the polished modern vibe. Irwin Hall's sax, flute and bass clarinet playing is especially electrifying throughout the album.

"Portrait of William" is one of the more poiniant songs in this 10-part album. Built on a song Croker began writing as a teenager, it's a melancholy-yet-hopeful homage to his father, a teacher and civil rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King in the '60s.

Tune in to The New Cool this Saturday afternoon to hear the propulsive acoustic-electronic blend on "Just Let It Ride," with a sharp drum solo from Shekwaga Ode that draws from the most modern edges of hip-hop rhythms. It's my favorite example of Croker's blend of the spontaneous and the produced, and easily reminds jazz fans of the musical traditions from which Star People Nation is built.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a 3rd generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.