Brent Birckhead is no stranger to the spotlight. The New York-based saxophonist has toured with Lauryn Hill and performed alongside artists like Wale and the Jonas Brothers.
The Baltimore County native and award-winning musician will return to his roots to showcase his debut album Friday at the Creative Alliance. His eponymous ensemble will play songs from its jazz album of the same name.
Coming from a family of artists, Birckhead was genetically inclined toward the path of the arts, but the choice to pursue music specifically began as a split-second decision he made in middle school.
At Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, where he was able to pick his concentration of study, he almost selected art. But at the last minute, his gut told him to select music.
The first time he was exposed to the HBCU marching band experience was not in college. At Milford Mill Academy, a predominantly black high school on Washington Ave., he learned skills that would inform the rest of his career.
“I learned how to dance and play at the same time,” he said. “I didn’t realize that would help till later on when I was playing with Lauryn Hill, Jonas Brothers, DNCE and all these other groups.”
In high school, Birckhead spent as much time as he could in the band room practicing.
“During lunch period I’d eat my lunch in like five minutes and go to the band room,” he said. “After a while, other people started coming into the practice room and then we just started playing together.”
His high school band director noticed and rounded up that group of four or five students to play live gigs all over the city. Birckhead received his first taste of performing live and leading a band – he was hooked.
The Howard University graduate spent nine years in D.C. and performed with D.C. based artists and bands like Wale, Phaze II and 76 Degrees West. During that time, he met Romeir Mendez, an acoustic bass player from Baltimore who would later become a part of Birckhead’s band.
“Brent has always been a great writer and the music that we were playing on tour was pretty much all of his original music,” said Mendez who lives in Loch Raven.
In 2012, Birckhead moved to New York.
“New York is one of those places where you can go into a jazz club and…[the] people that you listened to growing up are at the bar drinking a beer, two feet away from you,” he said.
Three years later, he was on a European tour with Lauryn Hill.
But tour life took its toll. Birckhead, who had been producing his own music and teaching at Morgan State University, could never find the right time to release it.
“We’re talking about being gone for the better part of those three and a half years…I’m talking about being gone for a month and back for two weeks all while maintaining your own life, your own relationships, your teaching schedule,” he said.
After wrapping up the tour in the summer of 2018, he used the money he earned from the tour to finally release his album ”Birckhead.”
“Even though this is an album that’s fun and engaging, it’s also heavy music that came out of the craziness that was coming out of Baltimore,” Mendez said.
Birckhead drew inspiration from the Baltimore protests and riots in 2015, over the death of Freddie Gray. The dark undertones from that time can be heard throughout the album.
Birckhead’s music is also influenced by go-go, blues and gospel. But the album follows a more unconventional style.
“There are people that say [jazz] has to sound a certain way. We call them the jazz police,” he joked. “I don’t abide by any of those laws.”
Birckhead’s album release show will be at the Creative Alliance on Friday, June 28, at 8 p.m.