Croker is part of a generation that grew up on hip-hop and weaves its ideas into his jazz. That weaving is obvious on the studio cuts from “Star People Nation,” where the songs are laden with electronic keyboards, textures and effects. It’s more subtle in a concert with acoustic piano (Michael King) and bass (Eric Wheeler). Croker himself wielded only a light reverb effect for his horn. But he did have a muscleman on hand: drummer Shekwoaga Ode.
While Croker, King and Wheeler played the opening “Have You Come to Stay” as a rumination, Ode was, from its beginning, working up a rumble. Soon, he had a complex polyrhythm going, the intricacies of a James Brown drum line meeting swing’s momentum and hip-hop’s powerful backbeat. Croker stayed ruminative but peppered his solo with rhythmic motifs that King picked up in his own improvisation.
King and Wheeler leaned into the zeitgeist on the similarly moody “Subconscious Flirtations and Titillations”— a “love song for the millennials,” Croker said. “Its street name is ‘Slap and Tickle.’ ” King played a flourish that he repeated like an electronic loop, with Wheeler following suit with a simpler, more subliminal bass line. They left their loops and followed Croker when his solo got going, switching to a strident swing. But Ode was again a wild card, working yet another polyrhythm of such power that even as Croker was playing beautiful, vibratoless romances, the drummer’s back-line improvisation was more interesting.
Ode was even more remarkable on Sam Rivers’s “The Cyclic Episode,” one of the non-album tunes (which, ironically, Croker told us had been deemed too straight-ahead to market—probably the first time that’s ever been said of a Rivers tune). It started out as sure-footed swing from Ode behind a dense, harmonically ambiguous tune, then flipped into something more harmonically stable and rhythmically ambiguous — some uneasy hybrid of swing and hip-hop. The swing returned for a long, bluesy piano solo from King, full of soulful jazzy licks, and stayed there for part of Croker’s careening solo before heading back into the hip-hop strut. The trumpet took on the cadence of a rapper without losing its gorgeous open tone, then steered back to swinging at an impossible pace for the song’s end. It was visionary stuff that bodes well for the future of jazz.