Brent Birckhead recorded his debut as a leader during a single six-hour session, one reason perhaps why the performances exude such intensity. While BIRCKHEAD isn’t a straight-up blowing session, it certainly presents the alto saxophonist as a player of formidable facility and imagination; however else his playing might be described, tentative definitely doesn’t apply. As someone who’s played with Lauryn Hill, George Duke, and Larry Graham, Birckhead’s comfortable in any number of contexts, and with tracks ranging between R&B, funk, and jazz, there’s something for everyone, the eclectic presentation less a reflection of uncertainty and more indicative of an omnivorous sensibility. He’s joined on the eleven-track release by the regular members of his quartet, bassist Romeir Mendez, pianist Mark Meadows, and drummer Caroll Dashiell III, with trombonist Corey Wallace sitting in on three cuts and guitarist Samir Moulay seven.
Thematically, Birckhead channels his concerns for family history, love, and contemporary black experience into the project, with “Song For Nicole” written as an ode to his wife, Christian Nicole, and the album concluding with Suite 187, a Freddie Gray-inspired trio of songs about state violence and its repercussions. In a way, the material’s musical character mirrors those thematic concerns, with fiery cuts balanced by less aggressive settings.
“3 Uptown” eases things in nicely with funky electric piano and guitar textures, a sultry R&B groove, and Birckhead enlivening the intro with sweetly melodic sax riffing. Sharing its title with the Paulo Coelho book, “The Alchemist” then shifts the focus to hard bop, with all concerned roaring at a rapid clip and the leader laying to rest any questions about proficiency with a soaring solo. Moulay and Meadows distinguish themselves with high-velocity turns of their own, their efforts matched by the light-speed propulsion of Mendez and Dashiell III. “Flux” dials the intensity down thereafter with a breezily swinging, Latin- and funk-inflected tune, something “The Ivory Antidote” does five cuts later in similarly engaging manner. Brief though it is, “4 and 6 (interlude)” is memorable for capturing another side of the leader, this one rooted in not only funk but boom-bap, too.
On a frenzied vehicle such as “The Alchemist,” Birckhead blows with the authority and fire of a Sonny Rollins, the passion with which the material’s executed equaled by his colleagues. The saxophonist’s tender side, on the other hand, emerges in the rubato-styled prelude to “Song For Nicole” plus the tune itself, a ballad whose sensitive rendering clearly speaks to the love Birckhead has for his partner.
At album’s end, Suite 187 bolts from the gate with “The Witching Hour,” the leader animating the performance with fury, after which “The Mourning After” opts for expressions of a deeply soulful kind and “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” an inspired reading of the song popularized by Donny Hathaway, caps the project with six anthemic minutes of spiritual uplift. The album’s aggressive cuts might speak the loudest, but it’s ones such as “Flux,” “The Mourning After,” and “Song For Nicole” that leave as lasting an impression, especially when, in these latter instances, the less frenetic pace allows the radiance of Birckhead’s horn tone to be appreciated all the more fully.