Arts Desk

“Just Melody, All the Time”: Q&A with Brent Birckhead

The alto saxophone is somewhat overshadowed by its bigger brother, the tenor—but not when Brent Birckhead is on the bandstand. He's a powerful player with both muscle and lyricism, and a generous helping of the blues undergirding them. Birckhead was a prime choice for Bohemian Caverns' Artist in Residence program, for which he is the September participant. Tonight at the Caverns he enters the second of two phases in that residency, and in the meantime spoke to Washington City Paper about those phases, the importance of melody, and how musical versatility always comes back to the blues.

Washington City Paper: Tell me about your month as artist in residence.

Brent Birckhead: Well, first off, the artist-in-residence program I think is a great idea for the city, if for nothing else because it makes an actual scene on Tuesdays. So what I’m planning to do this month is working with two different bands, just to get my music out there. Because I’ve been a sideman for so long, and this gives me an opportunity to actually get what I have to say out.

Being a sideman is kind of a gift and a curse. You’re a hired gun, always working, but, there are still some people who have no idea who you are even though you’ve been on all the gigs.

WCP: Have you got two different concepts in mind for the two different bands you’re playing with?

BB: The guys that I’m working with, they’re very different players. The first group used Samir Moulay on guitar, and Samir adds another element to his playing besides jazz, which I really like. He has an R&B, neo-soul thing, mixed with blues and jazz, all in one. It gives the band a totally different color. And Eric [Wheeler] on bass, he’s probably the most solid bass player in the city, period. His sound and his feel, he knows his place exactly. And Tim [Whalen], he’s just such a tasteful piano player. Doesn’t get in the way, and allows everybody to play together well. Fish [drummer Howard “Kingfish” Franklin], he knows the music so well. He’s been around.

The second group is actually the group that I play with most of the time, which is Josh Walker on guitar and Karine Chapdelaine on bass. Both of them bring a totally different flavor. Josh is like a Pat Metheny type of guitar player, which gives me a different type of vibe when I’m soloing, and Karine, she’s an artsy bass player. She’s a really colorful bass player, whom I really like. And they both know my music well.

And I’m using Fish on that one, too. I was planning to use C.V. Dashiell on both, but at the last minute we had a discrepancy. I usually always use C.V. on drums.

WCP: You’re also playing your own originals. Talk about your writing, and the directions you go with it.

BB: My writing is almost entirely melody driven. Just like the way I like to solo as well. And it’s not necessarily towards any one direction, it’s just whatever I’m hearing at that time. I have a lot of different influences; I really just love a medium swing where you can just dig in there and be playing the right notes at the right time. But I also love the hard-hitting, Kenny Garrett type of feel. And at the same time, we’re in this modern generation, and growing up my father listened Earth Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, that type of thing. So that type of influence, plus the hip-hop influence which we’re living right now, is also present.

So what ties all that together is melody, for me. And the same thing when I’m soloing: Just melody, all the time. No matter what, a beautiful melody will carry it over.

WCP: You mention Kenny Garrett, who is certainly the most important alto saxophonist of his generation, but listening to you play, honestly the first people I thought of were soprano players, like Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis. Do you also play soprano?

BB: Yeah, and it’s funny you should say that. Within the last two years I’ve been playing much, much, much more soprano. And it’s changed my sound!

Each one of the saxophones has a different voice, and for the saxophone player it’s almost like a whole new world once you really get into that instrument. You’re dealing with different frequencies, it’s running differently through your body, and it’s a totally different animal even though it’s the same fingering. It’s expanded my sound.

WCP: You’re from Baltimore, came to D.C. to go to Howard, and now you live in New York—but you still come to D.C.?

BB: Yeah, my weekends are mostly in D.C. I come in on Saturday, stay through Monday for the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra—or in this case until Tuesday for my residency—and then go back up on Wednesday. I do five or six gigs in D.C., most weekends, and then come back and do my regular gigs up here. I’m at Harlem Tavern every Wednesday, and I do a gig at Bowery Mission. And I also do a thing with a brass band with a bunch of guys from the Manhattan School of Music. It’s a fun gig.

WCP: You’ve got a lot of versatility going on, night to night.

WCP: And that’s why all the different influences. But you realize, if you give yourself to each of those things, and you do it honestly, then you can really do it. I know a lot of guys who’ll do a gig just because it’s a gig—and they’ll sound like they’re playing bebop in any genre. And it’s like speaking French in Mexico: Nobody’s gonna understand what you’re saying. Now you can mix in French quotes, you can say “Amor,” because people know what love is. But you’ve gotta bring it back to wherever it is.

And that’s how I do it when I’m playing. If I’m doing something with more pocket, I’m not gonna be dealing so much with harmony, I’m gonna be dealing with rhythm. But if I’m playing straightahead jazz, I’m gonna be dealing with more with manipulating harmony and creating melody. In a brass band, where everything is blues-based, I’m gonna be trying to figure out how not to play too many notes, while keeping the essence of the blues in there, and the groove. Different things for different genres that you have to keep in mind, so it sounds authentic, and you’re not a fraud. Trying to play something that you’re not comfortable playing.

And that’s been my thing: as a sideman, you’ve been doing all these different things, playing all these different instruments, and you learn to adjust to the situations.

WCP: Do you incorporate all of it when you play as a leader?

BB: Oh, absolutely. There’s different aspects of it in every song that I’m hearing. With these different musicians, they create different feels, and it kind of reminds me of one thing or another. But it’s all basically rooted in blues if you wanna really think about it. Jazz, R&B, all this New Orleans traditional stuff, and pop—the pop songs all use blues forms! I think you should be really, really well rooted in the blues.

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