Sasha Berliner
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 29, 2019 – 6 p.m.

On the stage sat a piano, a large vibraphone, a double bass – and a bereft-looking drumset, with no cymbals. American vibraphonist Sasha Berliner explained why as soon as she stepped on-stage: the quartet's drummer had been detained at Immigration and they weren't sure where he was at that point.

Unfortunately, he didn't make it to the concert, which was a pity, because I think drums and cymbals would have added a needed crispness and texture and propulsion to Berliner's music. What the jazzfest audience heard at this concert was lovely and unusual, but sometimes repetitive and occasionally almost soporific.

Berliner received the LetterOne “Rising Stars” Jazz Award (North American Edition) in 2018, which allowed her to undertake the festival tour that this show was part of. She has attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and is about to enter her last year studying at the The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC. The 21-year-old has studied with Stefon Harris and Chris Dingman, as well as pianist Vijay Iyer. A drummer since age 8, she’s played vibraphone since 13, and released her first album at 16.

She's also a poet and essayist who has written on sexism in the jazz industry. She supports the We Have Voice organization, “vowing to create a non-tolerance and accountability policy for discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and violence and abuse, in the performing arts.”

That concern was evident in her first piece, “A Heroine's Manifesto”, which she wrote after the 2016 U.S. election. The almost-15-minute piece opened with Berliner's mallets dancing across the vibraphone's keys deliberately, rather like a gavotte. The notes shimmered and overlaid each other, creating an enchanted feel – and then suddenly voices intruded, indistinct but angry and brutal. As she continued playing, the audience heard a collage of unidentified voices (male and female) which appeared to come from the current U.S. President and both his supporters and his opponents – with the latter calling for action on Black Lives Matter and the civil rights of all people.

The voices continued for about 2½ minutes, and then the serene flow of the vibraphone returned, joined shortly thereafter by Chris McCarthy's graceful piano and Kanoa Mendenhall's anchoring double bass. It was as though the angry words had not been spoken, which left me confused as to why they had been inserted there. Perhaps it was because Berliner didn't explain the piece, or because I didn't recognize the voices, but I didn't understand how the refined music related to either the song's title or its very political sound clips, or why the clips had been inserted as one lump instead of being used as a springboard for the music.

“Marigold” was a fluid duet between piano and vibraphone, almost hypnotic in its effect, with Berliner switching easily and quickly between two mallets playing melodies and four mallets playing chords. It evoked very strong applause and cheers. “An die Musik” opened with a rich and fully-enunciated bass riff with a dark edge, featured quizzical piano melodies and flurries of single notes on the vibraphone, and had all three musicians playing in and around each other to develop the piece's immersive vibe.

Berliner told the audience that the title of “Between the World and Me” came from a 2015 book about institutional racism against African-Americans, written by award-winning American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. It had an elegiac feel, with piano and vibraphone together creating gentle gospel-influenced melodies underlaid by solemn bass lines. The melodies undulated through the room – perhaps for a little too long without much variation – finally ending when Berliner ran her mallets fast up and down the vibraphone keys, enveloping the audience in the ringing sounds, and then let the sounds fade along with a few final notes on double bass.

The closing piece, “Mallards and Sea Turtles”, was one which Berliner added at the last minute. She dedicated it to a high school friend who died suddenly when she was in her first year of college; mallards and sea turtles were two of his favourite animals and “he was a goofy, light-hearted guy, very much like the water in the sea”. She played it solo on the vibraphone with four mallets, creating intermingled lines of melody and then waves of notes, and ending with a last bright flourish. It was a beautiful and memorable piece, a celebration rather than a dirge, and deserved the very strong applause it received.

I've always enjoyed listening to the vibraphone, and Berliner is an accomplished and assured player on that instrument. McCarthy's and Mendenhall's playing melded well with hers to create an often-magical sound, quite different from most jazz groups. I'm not sure, however, if that sound always works with the confrontational inspirations for her compositions: perhaps she needs to add other, more abrasive, instruments as a contrast?

Set List

All pieces by Sasha Berliner

  1. A Heroine's Manifesto
  2. Marigold
  3. An die Musik
  4. Between the World and Me
  5. Mallards and Sea Turtles

Photos of this performance are not available because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied's request for news media accreditation for founder, journalist and photojournalist Brett Delmage for the 9th consecutive year.