REVIEW: Theo Croker and Soweto Kinch at the Curtain Club,

L-R: Theo Croker, Nick Jurd, Soweto Kinch
iPhone snap by Rachel Coombes

Theo Croker and Soweto Kinch
(The Curtain Club, London. 16 May 2019. Review by Rachel Coombes)

The first on-stage encounter between alto saxophone player Soweto Kinch and trumpeter Theo Croker felt like a curiously private affair, taking place in a small, airless room with padded leather walls in the basement of The Curtain Hotel in Shoreditch.

The occasion for this exclusive collaboration was the album launch of Theo’s Star People Nation
(Sony Music), a record which, as he explained to the audience during the course of the evening, is about embracing humanity’s shared experiences (quite literally, since we are all composed of stardust), while also being an exploration of the musician’s own personal experiences as an artistic black man. It is a celebration of multiculturalism, bringing together the individual and universal through a musical language that synthesises the idioms of Croker’s own prestigious jazz legacy (he is the grandson of Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Doc Cheatham) with contemporary grooves and super slick production. The compositions evince, appropriately, the cosmic, spacious signature style which was consolidated on his 2016 album Escape Velocity. It is a style that is at once epic and introspective.

During the evening we were treated to a screening of the video for Understand Yourself, undeniably a standout track on the record, and one which perhaps best encapsulates the album’s spirit. The visual backdrop of spliced-together footage drawn from both everyday and historical rituals of blackness (such as the Million Man March Washington in 1995) created a powerful counterpoint to the vocals of the Jamaican musician Chronixx, who delivered a strong missive to cast off old identities so as to reclaim knowledge of one’s higher self, in a nod to Marcus Garvey’s famous speech ‘Man Know Thyself’. The track’s reggae flavour, blended with African percussion and the textures of the horns make for a potent mix, acting like a musical manifesto for Croker’s quest to reclaim the richness of black musical heritage and ‘re-serve’ it up to audiences.

The evening at the Curtain was hosted by the team at Brave Poets, a network of poets and lyricists who specialise in genre-defying nights of spoken word and music. They introduced the evening with a relaxed Q&A session between Theo and Soweto, which touched upon the pair’s own lineage and respective musical journeys, the territorial nature of jazz, and the importance of maintaining authenticity and sincerity when faced with pressure from the wider industry. Soweto acknowledged the importance of the ‘Rasta-conscious’ musical and theatrical environment in which he was raised, which allowed him to appreciate the fact that he could be a part of an influential creative continuum; similarly, Theo recognised that it was witnessing the sheer number of black musicians (from Wynton Marsalis to Eddie Locke) at his grandfather’s memorial concert that made him realise the vitality of the scene. "No one told me to be realistic," he said, gratefully admitting that he was given the freedom to pursue what seemed to many like an unstable career path. Fundamentally, both musicians accepted that there was a need for black musicians today to take control of their history and make it as visible as possible to the next generation – an aim which resonated with the premise of Star People Nation.

And so finally to the music: Soweto and Theo were joined onstage by Nick Jurd on double bass, Dexter Hercules on kit, and David Mrakpor (from Blue Lab Beats) on keys. The joyous informality of what followed suited the intimacy of the venue and gave the audience an intimation of the fun that world-class jazz musicians have when they’re not in ‘professional’ performative mode. Soweto announced that he would treat the audience to some ‘guinea-piggery’ by testing out a new track entitled The Rescue, which began with a crisp piano melody (played via his laptop), building up into intricate counterpoint with saxophone and flute. Theo gave us an introspective, thoughtful solo before the repetition of the piano melody brought the composition to a plaintive close. The group then presented an instrumental version of Understanding Yourself, which was in stark textural contrast to the recorded track, with Theo’s generous use of delay effects, Soweto’s unrestrained, exuberant improv passages, and David’s feisty keyboard solo.

The next work, Heartstrings – which Soweto announced that he would ‘curate’ for us on the spot – gave a chance for the audience to appreciate the sax player’s inimitable freestyling (the night was technically entitled ‘Jazz and Hip Hop’, although there was perhaps not quite enough of the latter to warrant this). His lyrical flow then gave way to further uproarious instrumental conversations between Theo and Soweto, with Soweto usually taking the lead, and Theo following with often angular and audacious patterns. His clean tone, daring melodies and crisp articulation were a clear testament to the inspiration of his mentor Donald Byrd. The second half of the night’s set was devoted to a favourite on-stage hobby of Soweto’s – freestyle audience participation.

After eliciting the words ‘success’, ‘technocratic’, ‘shenanigans’, ‘psychedelic’, ‘phat’ and ‘avocado’ from us, he weaved together some entertaining lyrics, tying the six words together into some kind of coherent whole (I wish I could remember exactly how...). But Soweto seemed itching to get back to his saxophone, which he swiftly did, concocting experimental improvised freak-outs with an equivalent ebullience. The night drew to a close with the two inviting their friend and collaborator Steve Williamson to join them on saxophone for a jam, and we left the venue (far later than we should have) with the woozy strains of Caravan in our ears.

Theo Croker’s Star People Nation is out now.

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