Theo Croker's third full-length album, the Dee Dee Bridgewater-produced Afro Physicist, is an ambitious, stylistically wide-ranging album that showcases the jazz trumpeter's soulful post-bop chops, sophisticated arranging skills, and adventurous compositional style. The grandson of the late jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham and a graduate of Oberlin College, Croker is an accomplished musician with a deep musical reservoir to draw from. Working closely with Bridgewater, with whom he has been performing regularly since 2009, Croker delves into a sound heavily informed by '70s soul-jazz, but which touches upon groove-oriented Latin jazz ("It's Not You, It's Me [But You Didn't Help]"), gargantuan keyboard and electric guitar-heavy jazz-funk ("Realize"), and atmospheric, dream-inducing modal jazz ("Visions," with vibraphonist Stefon Harris). There's also a subtle hip-hop and contemporary R&B influence running throughout most of Afro Physicist, primarily evident in the propulsive funky rhythms of drummer Karriem Riggins. Even on the frenetic, Ornette Coleman-esque "The Fundamentals," Croker finds common ground between late-'60s free bop and modern breakbeat dance music. Elsewhere, Croker showcases Bridgewater (a vocal dynamo and journeyman bandleader with a charismatic stage swagger equivalent to Art Blakey's drumming) on several numbers, including a midtempo '70s funk reworking of "Save Your Love for Me" and a Brazilian Carnival-ready take on the Michael Jackson classic "I Can't Help It." Blessed with a fluid, harmonically supple trumpet technique, Croker could easily monopolize the album. However, as evidenced by his collaborations with Bridgewater, Croker is a confident and sympathetic accompanist with an ear for crafting a balanced, powerful group aesthetic. He's so confident, he even brings on firebrand trumpeter/singer Roy Hargrove (clearly a huge influence on him) for the propulsive, Hargrove-penned contemporary bossa nova fusion number "Roy Allan." It's a bold, open-hearted statement that speaks to Croker's grounded sense of himself, a sense that permeates all of Afro Physicist. Ultimately, however, the palpable synergy and exuberant creative juice flowing between Croker and Bridgewater here are what make Afro Physicist a truly alchemic experience.
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AllMusic Review by Matt Collar