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Oriental sojourn shows trumpeter true direction
Theo Croker only meant to go to Shanghai for three months but the Chinese city became the trumpeter’s home for seven years. It was also a school of sorts, as he learned how to play in different situations and how to find his own personality. He met one of the most important influences on his career to date, the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, there too.
Florida-born Croker, who makes his Scottish debut at Glasgow Jazz Festival this week, has had a number of significant mentors in his musical life, starting with his grandfather, trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and continuing with the restlessly inquisitive Donald Byrd and the similarly enquiring Roy Hargrove. It was after meeting Bridgewater, however, that he began touring and recording and making his name.
“I was playing in the trumpet section of a big band that she was singing with in Shanghai,” he says down the line from New York, where he’s just finished a rehearsal for the follow-up to his Escape Velocity album. “After I took a solo she gave me this come hither signal and asked what I was doing. I was actually going off to play my own gig, so she came along and sat in with my band and we stayed in touch. The next time she came to Shanghai she was with Herbie Hancock and she sat in with my band again. Then she asked if I’d ever thought of making a record and offered to produce me.”
Bridgewater not only kept her word on that, she took Croker off on tour and used his band as her backing musicians, an experience that showed Croker just how strong a personality he was dealing with. “We tried to take her somewhere musically and she ended up taking her with us, whatever we tried to do,” he says. “She’s amazing. People say she’s a modern day Ella or Billie Holiday, and she has all that history in her music, but she’s really her own person, her own spirit, and she has so much energy and knowledge. I’ve learned so much just being around her.”
Croker’s introduction to jazz trumpet came through his grandfather, Doc Cheatham. Although he was only twelve when Cheatham died in 1997 he has strong memories of hearing him play and although Cheatham, whose career stretched from gigs with Bessie Smith in the 1920s right up to his nineties, didn’t try to force music on his grandson, he watched his progress and was quietly influential and encouraging from the wings.
“When I started to show that I might be serious about the trumpet he told my mum what horn to buy and there was one Christmas, not long after I started playing, that he gave me all these mouthpieces,” he says. “So I was the guy who had been playing for, like, six months but I had fifteen mouthpieces. That was funny but I listened to him playing and there was something almost triumphant in his music. The last time I heard him he did a 90-minute set with just a piano player and now that I’m a trumpet player, I think about that and I wonder, how did he play so long and yet sound so clear, so warm and so melodic? He had all that tradition in his playing, which is really inspiring.”
Croker puts great store in learning what’s gone before. He likens knowing jazz history to reading books in order to have an intellectual conversation. Having gone to Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio, he studied with the aforementioned Donald Byrd, a player who travelled from bebop to funk and while there played with drummer Louis Hayes, who made history as a founder member of Cannonball Adderley’s pioneering soul-jazz band.
After graduating, in 2006, he wanted to play as much as possible and when a three-month residency in Shanghai came up he jumped at the chance, little realising that the Chinese city had such a vibrant music scene. His three month stay extended to six months and when he returned to the U.S. he found he couldn’t get enough gigs to sate his appetite. So he went back to China.
“I was addicted to playing and I don’t know what it’s like now because it was changing when I left, but there was more work in Shanghai than there were musicians,” he says. “I played in salsa bands, and that was good training because you couldn’t play like Miles unless you wanted the dancers to look at you funny, and I had my own band. The best way to learn is to play and the best way to find yourself is to keep playing. People talk about moving the music forward and I want to appeal to a young audience but the music that’s gone before is just as important as where the music’s going next.”
Theo Croker’s quintet plays at St Luke’s, Glasgow on Sunday, June 25.
From The Herald, June 21, 2017
Country couple play first dates in Scotland
It’s the kind of break that some of the characters on TV series Nashville might actually kill for: a gig at the Ryman Auditorium supporting top singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen to promote your first EP.
This was the scenario Ben DeBerry and Dorothy Daniel – aka the Danberrys – found themselves in after being heard by a producer at 650 AM, the radio station that has hosted legendary country music programme the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman in Nashville for some ninety years.
And to add to the romance of the storyline, DeBerry and Daniel, unlike many musicians who are trying to make it in Music City, Tennessee, grew up in the Nashville area. In fact, DeBerry had appeared on the Ryman stage before, as a teenager, playing school guitar recitals, which takes a little bit of the gloss off the story. There is, however, some of the required bad luck and trouble in the Danberrys’ history too.
“Back in the early 1990s, the Ryman was going through a major renovation and wasn’t operating as a regular venue but my guitar teacher was good friends with the manager and he made it possible for me to play there,” says DeBerry. “It wasn’t quite the same as appearing on the Grand Ole Opry, but it was a thrill at the time and it was an even bigger thrill to appear at the Ryman as professionals because it’s a sacred place for country music.”
DeBerry and Daniel met at college and dated for a while before going their separate ways. They’d sung in the same choirs before they met properly and DeBerry taught Daniel to play the guitar but neither had ideas of taking up music as a career at the time.
Five years down the line they ran into each other again in a Nashville bar at around two in the morning. By then Daniel was working as an accountant in New York and DeBerry was doing contract work in a variety of jobs by day and playing gigs by night. Both had recently gone through relationship break-ups and when Deberry told Daniel she was the only one he wanted to be with, the spark was rekindled and they decided to get married.
During the time they were apart they’d both been writing songs and they started writing together. Just after Daniel moved back to Nashville from New York, however, she developed a problem with a nerve in her arm.
“I’d quit my job and I got quite bitter, to be honest,” says Daniel. “I couldn’t play the guitar and I went through a dark time when Ben literally had to haul me out of bed every morning. We’d moved to East Nashville, which is a really thriving musical community with a lot of energy, and this nerve problem was making me feel excluded. So eventually I went back to accounting. I didn’t even want to listen to music.”
Micol Davis, of the Nashville-based husband and wife team Blue Mother Tupelo, helped Daniel regain her appetite for music and suggested an alternative to playing the guitar that has become one of the Danberry’s calling cards.
“Micol comes from Indianola, Mississippi and she has this funky, gospel feel in her music that I just fell in love with,” says Daniel. “She also plays tambourine and this turned out to be just what I needed. It was great therapy, both physically and mentally, and we started following Blue Mother Tupelo around so that I could learn what Micol was doing.”
While Daniel was making a study of the tambourine (she’s also looked into Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira’s technique), DeBerry hit a particularly strong seam of composition. He played these new songs to a sound engineer friend who offered to produce a professional recording for nothing, with the proviso that DeBerry and Daniel released it.
The aforementioned EP, Company Store, and the gig at the Ryman with Robert Earl Keen followed in 2010. Since then, the Danberrys have released two full-length CDs and toured the US extensively, using Daniel’s accountancy qualifications and DeBerry’s various skills to organise tours and record releases entirely independently.
For their first trip outside of the US, which brings them to Scotland this weekend, they’ll be joined by Geoff Henderson, a bassist whose background in jazz and improvised music gives them the freedom to sing and play whatever they choose.
“There are some songs we’ve recorded that we can’t perform as a duo but Geoff brings this adaptability and strength in his playing that means we can just concentrate on what we’re doing and know that he’ll be right there with us,” says Daniel. “That gig at the Ryman and everything else that’s followed has shown us that the problems I had with my arm have turned out to be a good thing in a way.”
The Danberrys play Catstrand, New Galloway on Saturday, June 17 and go on to Irvine (18th), Edinburgh (19th), Kilbarchan (20th), Glasgow (21st), Kirkcaldy (22nd), Findhorn (23rd), Strathdon (24th), and Aberdeen (25th).
From The Herald, June 14, 2017
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