Vibraphonist Sasha Berliner Taps Elite Musicians For Edgy ‘Onyx’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Sasha Berliner is a San Francisco-born vibraphonist and composer who is delivering her second effort, Onyx, as a follow-up to her acclaimed 2019 Azalea. She’s operating in a rarified space. There just are not many female vibraphonists out there.

To get a feel for the tone of the album, consider that the “onyx” is a dark stone with a bold, cryptic nature. Berliner latched onto this, feeling it was a good descriptor for her atypical harmonic range and offbeat compositions that course through a range of emotions and moods. As she noted in a recent interview, “The opening up of crypticism and darkness to something very spiritual and powerful on the other end lends itself to the title ‘Onyx.’” To accompany her, she chose an elite group of younger, ascending contemporaries –   Marcus Gilmore on drums, Burniss Travis II on upright and electric bass and James Francies on piano and Fender Rhodes. Special guests include Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Julius Rodriguez on analog synths and vocalist Thana Alexa. You won’t hear many nods to tradition and any comparisons to leader albums from the likes of Gary Burton or Bobby Hutcherson are difficult to find although there are a few echoes of Hutcherson with Eric Dolphy on the iconic Out to Lunch, on the tracks where Shaw plays.Her fellow contemporary, Ross, though is a good reference point. 

She opens with the fierce Jade.”  Gilmore lays down a hip hop-influenced backbeat while her self-assured solo paves the way for a sturdy turn from Shaw, while she and Francies create dark tones of tension with hopeful tones breaking through periodically. Berliner began writing the composition during her senior year of college, finishing it once she had her degree amidst the pandemic. The fragmented nature of the Berliner’s wandering solo is to reflect memories that pop up and fade like vignettes. “Polaris” is an energetic piece that features an animated dialogue between Berliner and Francies on acoustic piano as well as sparkling solos from each while the rhythm tandem of Gilmore and Travis II dig in. This segues nicely into “Ephemerality” with she, Francies, and Rodriguez setting up a spacey, ethereal palette that Shaw interrupts with a fierce entrance, blowing clusters of notes. 

Berliner does acknowledge tradition with a two-part fantasia on the standard “My Funny Valentine,” as if to say, “you may be stuck on the old way but here is a new way to handle this material for today’s audiences.” Propelled by Berliner’s entrancing solo on the first, listeners float through a dreamlike exploration, waking up in a vibrant Part II where a brash and feisty conversation between the band ensues, with Francies and Berliner again matching thrusts and counters.  While we get many strains of the melody in Part 1, Part 2 becomes almost unrecognizable. Gilmore’s frenetic work on the kit is especially impressive here as well. 

Her last full original piece is “NW,” honoring her hometown of San Francisco in the “North West,” which is also the abbreviated title of one of her favorite books. English novelist Zadie Smith, known for her stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, writes a tale of two childhood friends growing apart as they age. In a similar vein, Berliner’s “NW” grapples with how one’s role in another person’s life can change along with the passing of time. Moving like an internal dialogue, Berliner takes unexpected turns on “NW,” driving listeners into a crossroads of harmony and tempo. Shaw’s fluid alto solo captures the fleeting nature of these episodic experiences between friends well as he moves from melodic, sustained sequences into frenzied ones, while Berliner and Francies move in slightly different directions and the tune never coalesces into any kind of head even with Shaw returning with glimpses of his opening lines.  The album ends rather oddly as if we are in a suspended time that just melts away with “Boom’s Epilogue.”

By design, the album is a collection of pieces that do not adhere to any theme. We are in the boundaryless territory.  Add Berliner to the new vanguard of contemporary artists that are reshaping jazz with unconventional compositional approaches. 

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