Music Monday: Theo Croker and James Brandon Lewis

This past week, I’ve been enjoying Theo Croker’s latest album, BLK2LIFE || A Future Past. For anyone not familiar with Croker’s work, he’s a young(ish) jazz trumpeter (the grandson, it would seem, of Doc Cheatham. Thanks Wikipedia!) whose last few albums have embraced certain elements of both Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism. 

His most recent album cover is perhaps the most blatant in this regard. Croker, seated an Egyptianizing throne, butterflies, lotus flowers, and surrounded by magical and historical landscapes (including, I believe, Giza and Los Angeles) and a field of stars. According to Croker, the album was inspired by “psilocybin meditations and astral travels” while in COVID lockdown.

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The themes present in the album cover parallel the the titles of a few of his earlier albums, including Afrophysicist, Escape Velocity, and Star People Nation. It is clear that Croker is keying into themes present not just in work of jazz predecessors such as Sun Ra, but the Black culture more broadly. The idea of a future past is perfect for me these days as I’m writing about time, the present, and contemporaneity in archaeology.

The music itself is perhaps less adventurous than the album cover. Croker draws on a wide range of inspirations from fusion era Miles Davis, to Donald Byrd’s soul jazz (who was apparently a mentor to Croker while they were at Oberlin), and, of course, the current trend toward exploring the intersection of jazz and hiphop and R&B. The cameo by Wyclef Jean is pretty fun and appearances by Ari Lennox, Charlotte Dos Santos, Iman Omari, and Kassa Overall create a range of sonic textures and opportunities for engaging with a wide range of listeners. I find the album pretty insistent without being forced and this is either a good or a bad thing, depending on your feeling about the future. 

I usually listen to an album five or six time in various settings before writing about it, but last night after a weekend when I worked too much (more on that later this week) and probably didn’t get enough rest, I put on on James Brandon Lewis’s 2019 album, An UnRuly Manifesto.

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The album cover is a bit less adventurous than Croker’s but still compelling and the music might offer a deeper provocation. Lewis is a tenor sax player who apparently cut his teeth with Charlie Haden. In fact, the album is dedicated to Haden, Ornette Coleman, and Surrealism. It is appropriate, then, that the rhythm section on this album is Luke Stewart on bass and Warren Trae Crudup III. Crudup and Stewart and tight (in a good way) and driving and provide a great foundation for Lewis, Jaimie Branch (on trumpet) and Anthony Priog on guitar to explore. While there is a lot on this album to remind one of Ornette Coleman, the places I found the album most compelling is when it evoked just a bit of Albert Ayler (such as on “Haden is Beauty”… although maybe I’m hearing mid-1960s Coleman and Cherry).

In any event, the album is UnRuly and clearly offers a pre-COVID manifesto of sorts. I’m looking forward to digging more into it this week and spinning (well, virtually at least) Lewis’s two 2021 albums Code of Being  and Jesup Wagon (with the Red Lily Quintet and William Parker on bass!) as well.   

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