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Vibraphonist Sasha Berliner refines her aesthetic vision with the darkly sparkling Onyx.
New York City-based vibraphonist Sasha Berliner describes her sophomore album, Onyx, as an “unabashed assertion of self.” “It definitely feels like a more confident effort, like I know who I am more, musically, as an artist, and I think it shows in the recording,” Berliner says, comparing her latest foray to her 2019 debut, Azalea, a softer, less assured outing released while she was still attending New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music under the tutelage of acclaimed vibraphonist Stefon Harris.
Onyx marks a pivotal moment in the 24-year-old bandleader’s rapidly ascending musical journey. A skillful vibraphonist, avid blogger and outspoken advocate and activist in the fight for gender equality in jazz and the performing arts, the San Francisco native has sharpened her music on Onyx, placing her among a select group of mallet masters who are elevating their unique instrument within a broader framework.
Produced by Berliner and JMI Recordings label head (and The Roots’ music producer) Steven Mandel, Onyx was recorded direct to analog in just four days during the pandemic in late 2020. The meticulously crafted album, which was released digitally this summer and then on vinyl, features in-demand players who are also known for pushing boundaries — Marcus Gilmore on traps, James Francies on piano and Fender Rhodes, Burniss Earl Travis II on bass and Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone.
“I knew I could challenge them to try different things and not worry about whether or not it was going to work,” Berliner says, adding that having total confidence in her ensemble, particularly the rhythm section, allowed her ample room to nurture her compositional curiosity, as well as a more relaxed improvisational approach. “When it comes to more complex harmonies or meter changes and things like that, they play it with this very effortless, fleeting sort of take on the music. It helped me feel less restricted in my soloing. I could improvise more freely and really take it somewhere.”
That “somewhere” spans eight tracks in 43 minutes on the adventurous session comprised of original material composed by Berliner, as well as a re-worked, two-part opus of the standard “My Funny Valentine” that pays homage to tradition even as it proceeds to subvert it. Throughout Onyx, an unsettling state of in-betweenness fluidly ripples through impressionistic expressions amplified by the weight of the moment. Changes in time signatures and transpositions imbue tracks like “Jade” and “NW” with a dreamlike quality. “It’s a lot of pulling you in different directions, sort of trying to communicate confusion,” Berliner explains.
Inspired by the vocal improvisation of Pink Floyd’s “The Great Gig in the Sky,” “Ephemerality” evolves exponentially. A series of chord progression peaks and valleys, devoid of a melody, catapult Shaw on a spiraling solo that heightens the feeling of groundlessness and ambiguity that pervades Onyx. “I wanted to make sure there were parts where the album could breathe,” Berliner says.
Elsewhere, Berliner welcomes a vocal contribution from jazz stylist Thana Alexa on the pensive “Crescent Park (In Elliptical Time),” for which Berliner wrote lyrics. And the last-minute addition “Polaris,” composed by the vibist when she was 19, features a spirited dialogue between Berliner and Francies on acoustic piano, which contrasts with Shaw’s earthy alto.
“There’s definitely a journey of emotions that I think is portrayed in the album,” Berliner says. “There are these darker, more cryptic emotions. But then there’s also the stuff that’s more positive, and blissful, and sort of the break that I think we all needed and got to reflect on ourselves or on life in general.” - Lissette Corsa
Featured photo by Adrien Tillmann.