Championed by Wynton Marsalis, no less, this 30-year-old Florida-born trumpeter is the grandson of Nashville horn legend, Doc Cheatham, and studied at the famous Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio where he was a student of such jazz luminaries as Donald Byrd, Gary Bartz, Billy Hart and Marcus Belgrave. He recorded his first album, the hard bop-style ‘The Fundamentals,’ in 2006 but then, in an unusual twist, his career took an unexpected turn when young Croker journeyed to China where he spent seven years working and honing his sound and style. Back in the USA, he hooked up with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and joined her DDB imprint, releasing the excellent ‘AfroPhysicist’ via Sony’s reactivated OKeh imprint in 2014. This, his second major label album, is his best yet, and stylistically occupies the neo-soul-jazz territory now claimed by the likes of Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge and Marcus Strickland. Croker’s sound is more akin, perhaps, to the pioneering ’90s work of Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor in the way that it melds serious jazz improv with infectious melodic hooks and simmering R&B/hip-hop grooves. Croker also adds a piquant dash of cosmic spiritual vibes to distinguish his special urban brew from the work of some of his contemporaries.
The opener, ‘Raise Your Vibrations,’ is a brief but spellbinding overture; a crescendo-ing wave combining echoing trumpet, swirling keys and cymbal splashes that is imbued with gravitas by a metaphysical mission statement spoken by Croker in solemn tones. He begins “Do not fear the end, life continues on higher realms…” Sounding a tad portentous, or even pretentious, perhaps, to some people, it is nevertheless grippingly hypnotic and then segues into the next cut, the blithe, episodic ‘Transcend,’ which mixes fanfare-like passages with harmonised horn motifs over crisp beats. ‘This Could Be,’ with its rolling gate, offers more of the same, an attractive hybrid of jazz and soulful R&B. ‘In Orbit’ is more urgent but no less alluring. Indeed, Croker writes as well as he plays and his material is uniformly strong. Dee Dee Bridgewater – described by Croker as his ‘musical guru’ in the album credits – drops in for a lissom vocal cameo on of a striking cover of the Norman Connors’ associated ’70s cut, ‘Love From The Sun,’ which is propelled by a muted dance pulse. Consistently engaging and yet varied in its blend of sounds and textures, ‘Escape Velocity’ is undoubtedly one of the best new jazz albums of the year so far. Whatever you do, don’t let it escape you.