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Sasha Berliner: Onyx (JMI)

A review of the vibraphonist's third album

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Sasha Berliner: Onyx (JMI)
The cover of Onyx by Sasha Berliner

The title of this album, and the title of its first track, “Jade,” announce a clear shift in focus for vibraphonist Sasha Berliner from her acclaimed 2019 album, Azalea. Many of the tracks on that recording were a pointed rebuke to the rising tide of American fascism. If that recording was taking it to the streets in protest, Onyx feels like a regenerative, refocusing visit to rolling hills and gentle streams.

Her playing is different too. The urgent rhythmic edges that propelled Azalea and were a highlight of her sidewoman work on Tyshawn Sorey’s brilliant sextet recording Unfiltered have given way to a serene, impressionistic style. 

Onyx features a stellar band: keyboardist James Francies, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and bassist Burniss Travis II, plus guest turns by vocalist Thana Alexa, synthesist Julius Rodriguez, and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. Shaw’s confident, striving lines are a highlight of “Jade.” Alexa’s vocals imbue “Crescent Park (In Elliptical Time)” with plaintive overtones. 

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Berliner often posted performance clips on social media that demonstrated her solo style becoming more complex and nuanced. Those performances feel like a prelude to her take on the classic “My Funny Valentine,” which is presented in two settings: first as a gently evocative solo, then in a sweetly elegant version by her band.

Another highlight is “NW,” a sly reference to the Zadie Smith novel. Berliner and Shaw offer their most expansive solos, and Gilmore drives the proceedings with impatient rhythms. Overall, this recording builds on the zeal of its predecessor and establishes Berliner as an elite and ambitious young artist.

Learn more about Onyx on Amazon and Apple Music.

Vibraphonist Sasha Berliner Finds Her Own Groove