‘D.C. is where it all started for me’: Brent Birckhead on his debut album

Brent Birckhead is an archetypal product of the D.C. jazz scene. He’s a strong straight-ahead player, but also well-versed in go-go, R&B and the other popular sounds of the city. And like much of the music emanating from U Street venues these days, his own efforts as a bandleader merge all those stylistic elements seamlessly.

Birckhead, a 33-year-old alto saxophonist and composer, grew up in Baltimore before moving to the District in 2003 to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Howard University, where he studied with longtime jazz professor Charlie Young III. Birckhead spent 10 years on the scene performing regularly with top bandleaders like Donvonte McCoy and Akua Allrich and in the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra, developing his abilities as a robust hard-bop and post-bop player. He also spent that time gigging in a variety of R&B and go-go groups, including the Chuck Brown Band; he’s also played in the touring bands of D.C. favorite son Wale and hip-hop icon Lauryn Hill.

All of that musical training comes to bear on BIRCKHEAD, his debut recording as a bandleader, which came out in February. The record’s 11 tracks range from G-funk-influenced R&B to mainstream modern jazz, flowing together with a deft sense of design. In an interview earlier this week, Birckhead said that his many years of playing live in D.C., and on the road with acts like Wale and Hill, instilled in him a strong sense of presentation. The core of the band on BIRCKHEAD consists of bassist Romeir Mendez, pianist Mark Meadows and drummer CV Dashiell III — all busy players still based in the D.C. area, who can execute the natural fusions that Birckhead’s music calls for.

Though he now lives in New York City, Birckhead will be returning to D.C. several times this year to celebrate the album’s release. He already performed at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and tonight he plays Sotto at 7:30 p.m. It’s his first club gig in D.C. since the album’s release. Birckhead will be joined there by Dashiell on drums, Noble Jolley on keyboards and Herman Burney on bass — just as formidable a group as the one on the album.

I caught up with Birckhead to talk about the album, the statements he wants to put forth with it, and how he hopes his music will be “received” by audiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CapitalBop: As I was listening to the album again, I was really enchanted by the album art. What is the story behind that evocative, psychedelic design? What kind of statement were you trying to make?

Brent Birckhead: Well, actually, I was talking to my friend Gio [Giordani Garcia] about the concept behind the album. He hadn’t even heard the music yet and … we talked for about an hour about the album being a statement of family, a statement of protest and a statement of love. The next day he put together that collage and, really, I couldn’t have thought of anything better.

CB: Let’s talk about those statements. How did you see those statements coming out through music? How does the album represent those things?

BB: The album is titled BIRCKHEAD, which represents my paternal side. And the original name of the album was “The Ivory Antidote,” which represents the maternal side. I always think that our experience is an amalgamation of all of our ancestors put into one. My [maternal] grandfather really set the standard as far as, you know, being an African American, getting his medical degree back in the ’40s. There was a great deal of resistance to be able to do so and he really set the bar for the family to be able to succeed, to do great things in the face of discrimination and all of these other things. That’s where the tunes [come from,] ranging from “The Ivory Antidote” [to] “The Alchemist,” which comes from the actual book [the novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho] about the power of manifestation — anything is possible — which has been a theme in my family.

There’s a suite on the album titled “Suite 187” which was inspired by events that had been happening over the span of many years but had come to the forefront in 2015 with the Freddie Gray incident, where he was killed in police custody. We have three tunes in that suite: “The Witching Hour,” which represents the initial impact of the events; “The Mourning After,” which represents the mourning after a loss; and “Someday We’ll All Be Free” [a Donny Hathaway cover], knowing that through the mourning process, we have to come out the other end free, whether it’s from mental bondage or from physically gaining your freedom. 

We’re dealing with love as well through all of these pieces. One that especially represents love is the tune that I wrote for my wife, “Song For Nicole.” All of these things come together to represent what I am, and I think BIRCKHEAD is a nice representation of that. 

‘I don’t necessarily have to think of D.C. when I’m making music: It’s ingrained in me.’

CB: I gather that “The Ivory Antidote” was about your maternal grandfather. Was it the maternal, familial connection that inspired the track, or something else, something deeper involving the antidote he perhaps found? 

BB: My grandfather was a doctor, which, hence the “antidote;” that was his answer for his inspiration in life and mine is music. It’s not just a connection with name, but a connection with wanting to do more, with wanting to do the best that we can with what we have. “The Ivory Antidote” aims to encapsulate that. Unfortunately, he was never able to hear that tune because he passed before I wrote it.

I always want to make my family proud in everything that I do and I always want to make music that my family can enjoy. That’s actually one of the things that fuels me: I want to make the music that my parents want to come out and see, that my family wants to come out and see and enjoy. Not just because it’s me, but it’s music that they like. This is why my music isn’t just straight-ahead, it’s not just funk, it’s not just R&B; it’s definitely an amalgamation of all those things, and hopefully we can portray that in an effective way. 

CB: I can’t help but wonder: When you say that this record is a ‘statement of family,’ does that also apply to your strong bonds in the D.C. jazz scene? Was any of this in mind as you made the music on the album?

BB: I don’t necessarily have to think of D.C. when I’m making music: It’s ingrained in me. I grew up in Baltimore and spent my manhood, 10 years of my adulthood, in D.C., where I first got on the music scene, period. D.C. is where it all started for me, really. I played in go-go bands here, I played on U Street, I played in R&B groups, I played in all different kinds of groups that formed the way that I play, that prepared me to be in the situations I’m in today — that prepared me to be a leader. Within my writing I’m always concerned with, first, ‘Is it musical?’ and then, ‘Are people going to be able to receive this?’ Those are the two most important things when I’m writing, and it’s important because D.C. is, especially, a live music city. So that’s always something that’s been in the forefront. 

CB: I want to dig into this idea of people being able to receive the music. Have you written things that were not received? What obstacles to you see to reception?

BB: For the music that I write, not only is it about the composition, it’s about the set list. If you set up the music so that people can receive it, you can play literally anything and they’ll be there with you energetically. What I’ve learned playing with all these different bands over the years is that you can have the best music in the world, but if you don’t place it in the right place and don’t make it concise, then nobody will receive it. But, if you make the music interesting, featuring different musicians, making sure solos aren’t too long, making sure you place the right tempos at the right times, the music can be received by a wider audience that maybe didn’t even know they liked it — that they liked jazz. I had that in mind when I was creating the order of the album as well, so they could listen to one of the hard-bop tunes like “The Alchemist” and then listen to “The Ivory Antidote,” one right after the other, and be like: “Wow, I didn’t know I could like these types of music.”

CB: Was this band — with Mark Meadows, Romeir Mendez and C.V. Dashiell — the best configuration of the musicians to present the music? 

BB: Absolutely! I’ve also learned a great deal from each one of the band members. I’ve also found that me, C.V., Mark Meadows and Romeir, we’ve found a real brotherhood within the music in which we could grow sharp. If I lead, they’ll follow; and when it’s time for them to lead, they’ll follow. I think that type of interaction comes alive on record and comes alive in live performance. They have no problem when I say, “On this tune right here, we’re gonna take one chord — make it happen within one chord,” or being able to spontaneously create interludes so we can create one tune to another, as long as we have the structure. We trust each other so we all go with one theme. I think when there is one theme within the music, and within the set, that the audience will follow — and follow easily, without much stress.

‘Within my writing I’m always concerned with, first, “Is it musical?” and then, “Are people going to be able to receive this?”‘

What I find when I go see live performances sometimes is that the music can be amazing, but maybe the set is disjointed, or maybe they haven’t figured out a set yet. That’s something I learned from playing with pop acts like Lauryn Hill. There is a set that they do every night. What happens within the set may change night to night, but they know there’s going to be these transitions, these tunes, and on these tunes, we’ll have these musicians. When it’s structured in that way, I firmly believe that the sets have been more effective. … Even having the “4 to 6 (Interlude)” transition from “Song for Nicole” to “The Ivory Antidote,” I wanted to switch the ear to be able to hear hip-hop before I went into “Antidote,” instead of going into a burner or a hard-swinger — just because I know the way crowds react in a lot of those instances. 

CB: Do you still feel part of the D.C. scene?

BB: I still feel part of it but it’s different … it’s just a different thing. When I come back, I’m generally coming back as leader, which is a very different thing for me, and there’s a different respect I have for the scene now and my colleagues as well. Now I see D.C. as one of my hubs: I know I can come here, I know I can get support, I know people here, I have family here. So, this will always be a home, without a doubt. It’s good to see that the scene is changing; every single time I come back there are new, young musicians that are hungry as well. There’s Marvin, there’s Sotto, there are places where cats can play and learn, because that’s what’s important in the scene, is for people to learn. When I come back, hopefully I can learn and I can teach some of the younger generation as well.

CB: What would you hope to teach?

BB: I would hope to teach, one, to be consistent. You can come out of this scene and do anything you want. Look at the Eric Wheelers, look at the Corcoran Holts, look at the Ameen Saleems, look at the Quincy Phillipses: All of these cats have traveled with everybody that you’ve loved and all of your heroes and they’re becoming your heroes. You know what I mean? Anything is possible, through consistency — that’s the first thing I’d like to teach. You can have it if you want it.

Two, hopefully aspirations as a leader and just releasing music; hopefully I can teach someone in that aspect as well. Of course, three, musically, because I can give back. Mostly it’s just: Hope and consistency can get you everything that you want. It would mean a great deal to see younger generations doing amazing things everywhere, being the most sought-out musicians in the world, because D.C. and Baltimore have such a strong musical presence, and a rich history of amazing musicians coming out of here.



About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music, NPR.org, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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