Backstage at the Utah Arts Festival 2022: Theo Croker, Spirit Machines set to light up Friday evening performances

Theo Croker: June 24, Festival Stage, 9:45 p.m.

Max Roach, the drummer who was a pioneer of bebop, asked once in a lecture: “In the work of black music where plagiarism and exploitation is wantonly practiced, we ask ourselves why it happens?  how it happens? and who is responsible? Do the answers lie in the history of the music and its creators as seen from a socio-political viewpoint?” In a 1973 performance of the songs and musics from the original 1960 album recording that became We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, Roach added a narration written by Janus Adams, which included the line, “JAZZ IS DEAD it says, but BLACK MUSIC IS ON THE RISE.”

The opening of that script line is the title of a track on Theo Croker’s new album Love Quantum, which drops on June 24, the same day that the internationally renowned trumpet player, composer and producer will perform at the Utah Arts Festival. Croker’s appearance will be on the Festival Stage to close out the festival’s second day, with his performance scheduled at 9:45 p.m.

Theo Croker. Photo Credit: Leighton Pope.

In an interview with The Utah Review, Croker’s words resonate with Roach’s words spoken nearly 50 years. Indeed, in the current era, trying to pin musicians into genre terms that often diminish the holistic impact of music as an esoteric subspeciality is being challenged with more vigor than ever. “Yes, ‘jazz’ is a terrible word to pin on a genre, because of what we know about the etymology and history of the word,” Croker says. “Originally, it was a demanding and offensive term.”

Croker who splits his time performing in the U.S. and Europe says that when he is playing in a village in France or Germany, for example, the audiences there are not stuck about how to feel the music because of some genre term before they hear it. Instead, he says it’s a community of young and old people coming together who love this type of music and who do not have to be told anything about it before they listen to it.

About his newest album with its metaphysical title, Croker says every track is about some type of love. In the Jazz is Dead track, on which he collaborated with Gary Bartz and Kassa Overall, the lyrics reflect Croker’s love with all types of musics that could never be adequately covered by a single term: “Born from the Black intellectual mind/Swingin’ with that afrobeat in J Dilla time/We the truth-torchbearers, open your eyes/Ain’t gonna let these institutions teach our culture to die/They can’t gentrify our spirits when the people align/We can set Black music free and watch the vibrations rise.”

Croker says that he was raised in a “creative way to find creative solutions and use their creative energy.” It was never stagnant, he adds. Everyone in his family, he recalls, had various tastes in music and they shared it with each other, including Latin music, rap, hip hop, electronic and rock. He says that all of those cultural experiences played a role for him as he was finding his own voice in music.

In the statement which accompanied the announcement about his newest album, Croker said, “It’s a love story. It’s a tribute to all the different levels of love that can exist – love of a friend, love of a partner, love of a parent, love of yourself and a love of life. It’s really about the journey of love, the experience of it, and how powerful that energy is for us as human beings.” In his interview, he adds the purpose of creating art is about cultivating and nurturing a “following in a community where their music and artistry are needed and deciding how contribute to it.” He continues, “this is what it is all about: creating art that helps and inspires people in their own lines. If you are only doing it for yourself to be recognized or to become a successful business, then you are losing some of that magic and you’re not going to bring the community with you.”

Spirit Machines: June 24, Amphitheater Stage, 8:15 p.m.

In four years, which becomes even more impressive once someone accounts for the pandemic gap, the Salt Lake City band Spirit Machines has made a mighty impact in a short timespan. One indicator that went viral and brought attention to the band was their video Zober, a genius mashup of Tool’s Sober and Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. It obviously impressed the members of Tool who shared a link on the band’s Instagram account. Likewise, Alice Cooper gave social media props to the band’s cover of School’s Out.

The band’s beginnings were due to a remarkable series of serendipitous events. In an interview with The Utah Review, Dave Crespo says that he moved from Boston to Salt Lake City four years ago to focus on music.”At the time when I moved here, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to live here,” he explains. “If I did it now, I would not have moved here and instead have gone to a place like Tulsa.”

Spirit Machines.

Crespo, a guitarist, already had a solid base in Boston. In his teen years, his band won a band competition in that city. His bands opened for major rock headliners and he launched two radio stations, including one that became a media advocacy platform for cannabis. 

Shortly after staking out his place in Salt Lake City, he saw Pepper Rose at open mic sessions. Rose also had Boston ties. She attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her graduate degree in chemistry. But, as the daughter of a well known bass player in gospel music, Rose had plenty of chops as a legitimate vocalist so during the day she was working in a lab at The University of Utah research complex and then moonlighting at open mic sessions in the evening.She only started playing guitar in 2011.

Almost immediately, Crespo says he knew there was good musical energy and he collaborated with Rose on writing songs and assembling a band, and the two began dating as well, while she was pursuing her doctorate studies Then they met Michael Collins, a drummer who was as versatile as Crespo and Rose in music as well as extra-musical pursuits. Crespo saw Collins performing at a club in downtown Salt Lake and knew that he immediately wanted him to join their jam sessions. Collins, who was a global marketing entrepreneur which included working in China, gave the band its widest pathway to rock. Later, bassist Sergio Marticorena, who like Crespo started playing in bands in his early teens, joined Spriti Machines. The experience for the band coming together was like hitting the jackpot, Crespo adds.

In the fall of 2019, the band had enough material to record an album which Crespo arranged with studios back in Boston. That indie album Feel Again came out in 2020, just as the pandemic brought everything to a halt. Crespo says that not waiting to release the album made sense, because major artists and recording labels were holding off on dropping new music so it was a window for independent local musicians to make things happen. And, the band wanted to capitalize on the head of steam that had built up with the Tool-Led Zeppelin mashup which attracted so much social media attention. 

The band decided to do livestream concerts during the height of social and physical distancing and they would attract hundreds of viewers from across the country. When live shows returned in 2021, the band was primed to perform on stage again. Overall, Spirit Machines is yet another great exemplar of the sort of creative entrepreneur pioneering stories that have given Utah its reputation for punching well above its weight when it comes to the arts and music scenes locally. 

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