Theo Croker Quintet at House of Blues & Jazz in Shanghai
Theo Croker Quintet
House of Blues & Jazz
October 26, 2009
On Monday nights House of Blues & Jazz offers a rarity on the Shanghai jazz scene: original music. Tunes written by the players on stage are a special treat when you've been around town listening to covers of standards for the past couple of months. No better place than the o.g. House, where the sound will most likely be supreme due to the venue's vaulted ceilings and general stage/speaker placement. The main room of the House is fairly full on this Monday: an intellectual in the corner, scarf and all, trying to read a thick tome in the low lamplight, and a fair collection of businessmen looking to take the edge off before returning to houses in the suburb or hotel rooms in the immediate area.
The house music fades and Theo Croker announces the start of the set, mentioning that tonight will be "House of Jazz," even though, according to the dredlocked trumpeter, blues and jazz are the same thing. Feel free to argue with him about it at the next break, he says. The first song is "Clearisms," a tune by Jonathan Parker, one of the more prominent alto saxophonists in town these days. If you were at the Dee Dee Bridgewater concert in Shanghai on October 16th, you may remember Dee Dee bantering with the tall, lanky sax soloist with his fluffy head of hair. Smart for the players to choose a bold start for the evening, where the nuances aren't as important as the band jelling and tuning in to each other.
The next song is much more lyrical, with the trumpet leading the first verse along with the piano, manned by Sean Higgins. There's a fuzziness to the first two songs that's typical at the start of extemporaneous jazz sessions. Five players finding their way around one another. Curtis Ostle's bass solo steadies the rhythm, and by the time Parker steps up to solo, it seems that the band is on its way. Dizzy Gillespie's famous "Salt Peanuts" is sneaking into the mix here. There are definitely recognizable melodies although the expectation was that they would be playing originals tonight. Ah, Theo explains, that was a cover after all, "Bye Bye Blackbird."
A Croker original is next, "What If." Like Miles Davis' "So What?" there's a distinctive bass line in the background that keeps the solos interesting when you listen beyond the soloist. It's pretty critical that the rest of the band work hard regardless of who's soloing upfront. Higgins on the piano keeps a soft underlining vibe, flying with a harder edge towards the end of his soloenough to make this listener long for more edge overall in the piece. Another Theo composition follows, "Focus." Again Ostle kicks off with a distinct bass line and the horns jump in. It's soon apparent Parker and Croker have been playing together for a while as the sounds from the horns of each meld together readily. The song, moreover, proves memorablea catchy main theme that has a lot of brass oomph. Much more kick than the last song. The slide allows the brass to shine more, in the solos as well as the choruses. Charlie brings whimsy to the drums with some alert, catchy but sly rim-smacking. (Hey, let's not forget what jazz is originally about now...sex, sex, sex.) Ha! There's an edge to this song that makes you sit up and pay attentionor focus, if you will.
The rhythm section is getting really tight as Higgins solos, followed by a fast and fat bass solo to keep the momentum going. Charles Foldesh comes in with a crazy drum roll, and he's almost off his chair, as are the rest of us. Okay, not literally, but at least in my mind I'm on the ceiling at this point. That was one kicking tune. Next, the band's on break, which is as good a time as any for a quick background. Croker, Ostle, Foldesh, and Parker are all classmates from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and Sean Higgins is from Andover, Massachusetts. The Oberlin folk play together quite often, but Sean's been a regular at another venue in town, Brown Sugar, for the past year, so it's been a while since he's jammed with the rest of them. It's rewarding to hear him play jazz though, as I've most often heard him during Brown Sugar's R&B set.
Theo Croker introduces the second set and promises that everything will be in three's. Damned if I know what that means. He explains, "You know, like the waltz?" and I'm thinking, ah right, boom chak chak, boom chak chakall right I got it. (Not really, but I'm trying.) The first song is Lawrence Williams' "Number Three." Ostle throws down a lyrical bass solo. Besides the solo, there's a definite dedication to three's coming out his instrument during the accompaniment: bom boom boom, bom boom boom. (Still trying. I amreally.)