The Dark Funk of Theo Croker

Album cover for Theo Croker’s Afro Physicist
Album cover for Theo Croker’s Afro Physicist

One of the brightest 20-something lights on jazz trumpet, Theo Croker—grandson of New Orleans trumpet legend Doc Cheatham—followed a more traditional jazz script on his first two records, The Fundamentals (2007) and In the Tradition (2008).

For his latest, Afro Physicist, a Dee Dee Bridgewater production licensed to Sony’s Okeh label, the Florida-born-and-raised Croker flipped a switch, landing him top-10 JazzWeek radio play and press clips proclaiming him a “bold” and “fresh” voice.

“When I met Dee Dee, I was living in China,” Croker says before going on stage with Bridgewater at the 60th annual Newport Jazz Festival. “There I was exposed to the idea that music is just music, and that genres really don’t matter. That’s just a way to sell music, or to categorize people and audiences. It’s a marketing tool.


“I’ll meet people who say, ‘I don’t like jazz, I don’t like funk,’ but at the shows, they’re in the front row dancing. It’s just music. They don’t really know what it is. They just know how it’s been marketed to them.”

Croker lived in Shanghai for eight years, performing thousands of shows. In China he gave (now-mentor) Bridgewater an archive of his demos. She “came with a concept that showcased all these different styles and feelings of music that I had explored over the years.” Afro Physicist frequently shifts intensity, from a musing solo tribute to Cheatham, “Alapa (For Doc),” to the rump-shake dynamism of “Realize,” evoking E.U.’s “Da Butt” from Spike Lee’s film School Daze.

Croker began probing the Afrobeat music of Fela Kuti with a 10- to 12-member ensemble in China. Afrobeat’s mashup of traditional African rhythms with jazz and funk appealed to him. The tune “It’s Not You, It’s Me (but You Didn’t Help)” is a midtempo example, combining trumpet and flute frontline supported by laid-back bass, syncopated guitar and poppin’ percussion, with a bridge of ascending, parallel, suspended chords. But the technical side of his music never overshadows the groove.

This was a conscious choice. “Nothing in my music is hidden or disguised. A lot of it is very clear. I find that’s what attracts people to it,” he says. “Donald Byrd taught me to edit the complexity down to the juiciest, most simple, accessible parts. Then we’d layer that and it would be clear, like a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat painting, with a lot of stuff going on, eclectic and layered with emotion, but so basic at the same time.”


On Croker’s previous recordings, his phat tone and clean, precise trumpet-playing evidenced deep study of the jazz-trumpet tradition, from Louis Armstrong all the way to Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton. Afro Physicist is gritty: Just compare the version of “The Fundamentals” with the title cut of his first record. Now you’ll hear the stamp of Roy Hargrove’s The RH Factor on “Light Skinned Beauty” and Hargrove’s own “Roy Allan,” with a cameo by Hargrove on vocals.

“On ‘Light Skinned Beauty’ I wanted something not on the one. It’s all on the four,” reveals Croker. The melody rocks, solos pivot to R&B/hip-hop, then in-flows what Croker describes as an intense, Charles Mingus three-quarter time section, braiding horn lines and organ synths. On “Roy Allan,” also an Afrobeat arrangement by Croker, the surprise interlace of Tom Browne’s “Funkin’ for Jamaica” brought da crunk, like Kendrick Lamar did on Big Sean’s “Control.”


He’d been playing “Roy Allan” that way in China for years.  

Variations on old and modern classics animate the date. His Afrobeat arrangement of “Save Your Love for Me” appealed to Bridgewater, who also joined him on a sleek “Moody’s Mood for Love,” as well as a swelling, mazy Latin-African take on Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It.” When asked why he also included Wonder’s “Visions,” Croker verged on incredulity:

“You can’t be a 21st-century musician if you’re not aware of Stevie’s music, and spend some time investigating his contribution.”


Stoking the flame further, drawing the young brother out, I ask him if some of his generation have abandoned blues and swing in jazz. Croker’s soft-spoken, respectful, yet firm response:

“Even if we’re playing a hip-hop rhythm, if the swing isn’t present, it’s not legit. Swing is the foundation,” explains Croker. “These are things that Robert Glasper and Chris Dave understand; that Quincy Jones understood with Michael Jackson. It’s present as an extension, and it’s intentional. J Dilla was aware of it. Biggie Smalls was aware of it. You cannot listen to Biggie Smalls and not recognize the rhythms that he’s using and his connection to swing and the blues. Kendrick Lamar, rhythmically, if he keeps going in the direction he’s going, he’ll get to the level that a lot of instrumentalists are on with rhythm.”


Croker admits that at 29, he’s still putting pieces together. Yet he’s clear about what he’s signaling—it’s like that mysterious dark energy in physics. Croker calls the tribal texture of the music he and his band create “dark funk”: “Not dark in the sense of dark vs. light, good and evil. Dark, ’cause it’s funky; dark in that it’s deep, an abyss, undefined, endless. Darkness brings life.

Greg Thomas is a cultural journalist and frequent contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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