When 20-year-old vibraphonist Sasha Berliner received the call, letting her know that she’d won the 2019 LetterOne RISING STARS Jazz Award, she couldn’t believe it.
“It was a surreal moment,” Berliner says. “It seemed too good to be true. I thought, I hope I’m not being scammed. But it was real and it’s another incentive for me to work harder. I just want to make the most of all of it.”
Berliner had good reason to be shocked. The contest drew entries from 230 aspiring jazz musicians. After narrowing the field to 20, the judges — a record producer, a jazz journalist, the director of the Montreal Jazz Festival, and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater — selected her. The prize includes a seven-city North American tour, including the Rochester and Montreal jazz festivals, and a year of career promotion.
Before winning the award, Berliner was already turning heads. After hearing her play, one of the most acclaimed multi-instrumentalists in jazz, Tyshawn Sorey, asked her to join his sextet. “I’ve learned so much from being in his band,” Berliner says. “He’s a hero to me.”
Growing up in San Francisco, Berliner began on the drums. But when she auditioned for Oakland School of the Arts, there were better drummers. She was offered admission on the condition that she study vibraphone.
Her first major influence was Gary Burton, whose grip and style were introduced to her by her teacher. “I loved all of his stuff,” says Berliner. “He was one of the first people to do what he did on the vibraphone.”
Practicing several hours a day has given her a command of the instrument, but there are still challenges.
“It’s definitely one of the most difficult instruments in terms of moving around it,” Berliner says. “It’s more specific than drums because you’re hitting specific notes. And it’s a big instrument. One thing I’m always jealous of with Joe Locke or Gary Burton: they’re really tall. They can see the whole keyboard, no problem.”
Adding to the challenges are pedals: “You have a foot on the sustain pedal ready to go, and you need to figure out how to navigate your other foot,” Berliner says. If that’s not enough, there’s the four-mallet technique.
“Four mallets is definitely more difficult because it’s harder to control dynamics, especially loud dynamics,” she explains. “You can get blisters. It requires an additional level of awareness and multitasking.”
That does not deter her from using four mallets on her composition “Mallards and Sea Turtles: For Neel Foon.” Written for a classmate who died, “It really creates an atmosphere verses just musical notes,” she says.
Another original piece demonstrates Berliner’s need to express her ideas through music. “Between the World and Me” was written after she read the book of the same name by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“I was having a lot of thoughts about what it means in today’s world to be a white person playing black American music and approaching these issues of discrimination that exist now: racial discrimination, sexual discrimination,” Berliner says.
“It’s not in explicit forms anymore,” she says. “There’s a lot of nuance and intersectional factors. It’s very complicated and it’s not stressed enough. The book really touched on that. The reality of what’s happening in America — gun violence, police brutality — I wanted to communicate my emotions about that in a piece.”