At 21, Sasha Berliner is already an accomplished vibraphonist, composer, bandleader, and performer. In 2018 she won the first Letter One Rising Stars Jazz Award competition to be held in North America, beating out 230 other artists. The prize included a tour of seven major jazz festivals in North America and Canada, and one of her stops in June was at SFJAZZ, where she’d once been a member of the San Francisco-based nonprofit’s High School All-Stars Orchestra. SFJAZZ founder Randall Kline introduced Berliner with heartfelt pride and praise.
Berliner says she applied for the Letter One award on a whim and was thrilled when she won. “It’s been amazing,” she said by telephone from San Francisco, a few hours before the SFJAZZ gig. “I played a couple of festivals before, but this is a whole other level, and it certainly was an incentive to up my professionalism, work on some new original music, and start working on my album.” That album, Azalea, is her second full-length recording, slated to be released in September on Unseen Rain Records; it will include all original compositions.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun—a combination of sonic inspirations,” Berliner said about the album. “It takes its inspiration from rock, funk, alternative, and other genres, using synth and strings. There’s also a good balance of full-length songs and interludes that will display a harmonic and rhythmic palette that’s very diverse. It is definitely going to take the listener on a journey.”
Berliner grew up in Oakland, Calif., listening to the rock & roll her parents played, and started playing drums at age eight. She auditioned for and got into the Oakland School for the Arts, where they asked her if she’d be willing to learn the vibraphone. However, the school only offered either a classical or jazz path. “I didn’t think I had the technical prowess to play classical, so I decided to choose jazz,” she recalled. “The chords are much more interesting and complex, and I was intrigued by the improvisational and harmonic aspects, and by this idea of telling a story on the spot, and learning how to perfect that.”
In 2016, Berliner moved to New York to attend the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music at the New School. “It was intimidating at first,” she said. “Going to jam sessions and meeting people was scary for me. But I knew it was something I had to do—I wanted to get into the scene there.”
New York proved to be fertile ground for Berliner. “I had a lot of mentors that really looked out for me and helped me network and introduced me to the right people,” she said. Perhaps the most important of these was one of her teachers, acclaimed vibes master Stefon Harris: “He changed my playing permanently, and my approach to music, to composition—and to my life. It was all-encompassing.” Slated to graduate in 2020, Berliner admits she doesn’t spend much time at school anymore, because she’s so busy touring and performing.
A young female instrumentalist in a predominantly male scene, Berliner has had to deal with gender-bias issues, and she has repeatedly spoken out in support of women being recognized equally for their musical ability. She did that most notably two years ago in an “Open Letter to Ethan Iverson (and the Rest of Jazz Patriarchy)” on her website, which responded to an interview that Iverson had conducted with keyboardist Robert Glasper for his Do the Math blog, during which Glasper made some questionable comments about how women relate to jazz. You can still read it at sashaberlinermusic.com.
Fortunately, being her own bandleader has given Berliner a lot of control over her music and her career. You could see that at SFJAZZ as she led her band for that night (Chris McCarthy on piano, Kanoa Mendenhall on bass, Christian McGhee on drums, and Morgan Guerin on saxophone and EWI) through two sets of her original compositions with steady grace. The arrangements were tight and filled with inspired solos from each of the highly skilled players, including Berliner, who displayed her formidable chops on vibes and MalletKAT, a MIDI controller played with mallets that she uses to create compelling melodic, harmonic, and percussive sound effects.
Next up for Berliner: further diversification. Citing Björk and Radiohead as important influences, she said, “I’m not tethered to the idea of just doing jazz. In fact, I’d actually prefer to be more well-versed in other genres, and be known as someone who can do all of it.”