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Strength in Numbers

New label taps into Baltimore’s eclectic jazz scene

Photo: Christopher Myers, License: N/A

Christopher Myers

John Birkholz, in his home studio, founded strong records to help local jazz artists reach a broader audience.


Local musician Jon Birkholz keeps himself pretty busy. He plays keyboards in Soul Cannon alongside guitarist Matt Frazão, drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell, and MC Eze Jackson. Birkholz started helping Frazão curate the biweekly Out of Your Head improvisation nights at the Windup Space after co-founder Adam Hopkins moved to New York. Birkholz also plays keys in Jazz Lunch, the sextet that plays Sunday afternoons at the Bolton Deli during the warm-weather months. And he’s in Adam Lempel and the Heartbeats, the other wonderfully engaging band from Weekends’ singer/guitarist. And then he’s in this new, rock-leaning group, Super City, alongside Jazz Lunch guitarist Dan Ryan. And Birkholz’s solo project is Inca. And, and, and—

“I feel like I’m forgetting something,” Birkholz says, sitting atop a Station North watering hole’s barstool while mentally counting off his various projects. “That’s all I can think of at the moment. I try to do as much as I can.”

He’s not the only one. Like many local musicians, he enjoys playing with like-minded musicians. Hip-hop and club music’s producers work with a variety of vocalists and MCs. In local indie rock and pop, people’s side projects have side projects, and sometimes somebody fills in on bass for a tour because somebody has school or couldn’t get out of work. It’s Baltimore: People help each other out and you don’t have to go far to find a talented, creative mind willing to try something new.

With the generation of jazz musicians coming up alongside Birkholz, though, there’s not really a local or regional label documenting what’s going on. Baltimore indie-rock bands might turn to Friends Records or aspire to get noticed by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey, which has steadily put out local bands in recent years. Unruly Records couldn’t be more identified with club music. A metal band might look to A389 Recordings. Ehse Records puts out some of the city’s genre-defying outer limits. In these communities, there’s some semblance of an infrastructure in which a musician might consider putting a record out. For young jazz artists, not so much.

And so Birkholz started Strong Records, a label created to document a still-burgeoning community of musicians who currently aren’t recording that much, despite the considerable amount of exceptional music they’re making. The label’s first release, Strength Volume 1, a compilation of work from 11 bands, comes out Aug. 29, with a release party taking place at the Crown.

Birkholz says the idea for Strong Records started with guitarist Jon Lipscomb, who plays in Whoarfrost, among other outfits. Birkholz and Lipscomb recorded Jazz Lunch’s 2012 album, Housewarming, in Birkholz’ Charles Village home, and Lipscomb noted that it was a good-sounding room that they should use to record other groups.

“It’s stemming a lot out of Out of Your Head and the people who have met each other through [the series],” Birkholz says. “And it strikes me that we’re at a point, at least with the musicians I know, where everybody plays really great, writes really great, and somebody offers them a show and nobody really has any records.”

The community-focused independent jazz label is why we can still hear what was happening at certain times in certain places. The Douglas label’s Wildflowers sessions provide one of the few glimpses into the musicians who fed New York’s loft sessions in the 1970s. Large chunks of Sun Ra’s early output don’t exist without El Saturn Records. More recently, think about AUM Fidelity, John Zorn’s Tzadik, or Eremite Records, labels in many cases putting out albums by artists and groups that bigger labels ignored, and/or giving emerging groups a chance or offering veteran side players the spotlight as band leaders.

The difference between right now and those examples is that physical media don’t sell as much as they used to, and jazz hasn’t moved The 20/20 Experience numbers in a while.

“I’m in a number of different projects and I can’t afford go pay an engineer to record all of them,” Birkholz says. “I think it’s the case for a lot of people—they don’t have $2,000-3,000 to drop on the engineering time, the mixing time, and manufacturing. And it just doesn’t make sense to have a thousand CDs pressed. I’ve got 990 CDs sitting in my basement having done that in 2006 [with Flora Fauna, a trio with drummer Devin Gray and bassist Michael Formanek], and it’s a good record but there’s not a lot of demand.”

Music consumers expect to hear music for free, so spending a great deal to record and manufacture an album isn’t economically prudent. Jazz outfits also typically don’t tour with the rigor of a rock band that might cram 15 to 25 shows into a three- or four-week jaunt where each stop is an opportunity to sell product. Birkholz wants Strong to be a collaboration with the artists on the label. He can record groups in his home to keep recording, engineering, and mastering costs low. Bands can decide if they want to stream albums via Bandcamp or SoundCloud. And then if a tour or gig is coming up, or people contact the label because they want to buy a physical copy of what they listened to online, then Birkholz can manufacture an actual CD via a need or on-demand basis.

It’s a smart way to deal with a situation of seemingly unlimited online supply for consumers who want personalized service in the real world: Every small-batch run of a Strong Records release in essence could yield a unique limited edition.

“Because people expect to be able to hear anything instantaneously, it makes sense to make [the music] available,” Birkholz says. “But if it costs nothing to get it, it should cost almost nothing to make it. So my idea is to make one CD at a time or one record or one cassette—if you really want a record, I will spend the time to make it.”

Strength Volume 1 includes tracks from Microkingdom, Talking Points, Whoarfrost, Talk Show, Dave Ballou’s Leap, and Name Numbertet, an impromptu group featuring Birkholz, Ellman-Bell, Frazão, Lipscomb, and saxophonist Derrick Michaels. That quintet’s “Don’t Panic” is a tight slab of jittery rhythm and funky horn bursts, captured with an unfussy warmth. And if “Don’t Panic” tickles your ear, well, like most of the artists on the comp, there’s an album’s worth of material waiting to be discovered.

That’s primarily what Birkholz wants Strong to be: a vehicle to help a group of artists be heard by a wider audience. “All of these bands [on the compilation], I feel really strongly that the main thing they do is think about playing everything really well and performing really well,” Birkholz says. “It doesn’t even occur to them to promote themselves or make a record. But if there’s 50 people in Baltimore who like listening to [the music], then we’d like to make it easily accessible to them—and make it easily accessible to the 50 people in Philly who like it, the 50 people in any place, really—and trying to build some scene recognition that way.”

Talk Show hosts the release show for Strength volume 1 Aug. 29 at the Crown with Happy Hours, Leap, Memetics, Chris Pumphrey Quintet, Super City, Talking Points, and Whoarfrost. Admission is $5 and includes a copy of the compilation CD.

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