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Feature: Sasha Berliner Quintet


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."

In This Guide...

  • Jazz Fest Guide: Three thoughts for the 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival

    The 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival is here, and with it, a whirlwind of concerts by national, international, and local musicians. It can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned jazz fest fan.

  • Festival Information

    Everything you need to know about tickets, venues, parking, and how to connect with us to make the most of your Jazz Festival experience.

  • The Players: Friday, June 21

    Teagan and the Tweeds | teaganandthetweeds.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion - Squeezers Stage (Bluesy rock 'n' roll)

  • Profile: Dawn Thomson's Imagine That

    When digging on an artist of two or more disciplines, you have to wonder which one dominates in that artist's heart and head. Dawn Thomson plays it slick and sweet on the guitar.

  • The Players: Saturday, June 22

    Ambassadors Jazztet | armyfieldband.com/about/ensembles/jazz-ambassadors 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Interview: The Honey Smugglers

    Blame it on love. Rochester's The Honey Smugglers is here because it's frontman, Brian MacDonald, fell in love.

  • The Players: Sunday, June 23

    Zion Hill Mass Choir 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Gospel)

  • Interview: The Willows

    The voices of Krista Deady, Andrea Gregario and Lauren Pedersen are spun gold, blended so well that they come across as one three-tiered voice. The trio known as The Willows makes other vocalists sound like Edith Bunker.

  • The Players: Tuesday, June 25

    Soul Passenger | soulpassenger.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Rock)

  • The Players: Monday, June 24

    Fred Costello | fredcostello.com 4:30 p.m.| M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (B-3 organ jazz)

  • Profile: Harold Mabern

    When Harold Mabern was growing up in Memphis, he had no ambition to become a jazz pianist. "I didn't choose it; it chose me," says Mabern, a self-taught musician.

  • Feature: Jeff Goldblum & the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra

    When you're known for being chased by dinosaurs and being turning into a giant fly, it's inevitable that you'll have to do the rounds: going on press junkets, shaking babies, kissing hands, and hocking your latest wares -- in this case, a jazz recording. Jeff Goldblum, the actor and Hollywood bon vivant found himself on the Graham Norton Show about a year ago, doing the standard media song-and-dance for the movie "Thor Ragnarok."

  • The Players: Wednesday, June 26

    Herb Smith Freedom Trio | herbtrumpet.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Feature: George Coleman Quartet

    In the early 1960's, after saxophonist George Coleman had earned his way to the top of the jazz world playing with Booker Little, Max Roach and Slide Hampton, he was tapped by Miles Davis to play in one of the greatest quintets in the history of jazz. Coleman recorded four seminal albums with Davis: "Seven Steps to Heaven," "My Funny Valentine, "Four," and "Miles Davis In Europe."

  • The Players: Thursday, June 27

    The Buddhahood | thebuddhahood.com 4:30 p.m.: M&T Pavilion – Squeezers Stage | (Jam-band, world music)

  • Profile: Bill Charlap

    You might say pianist Bill Charlap was born to play standards. His father, Moose Charlap, was a Broadway composer best known for his iconic musical "Peter Pan."

  • The Players: Friday, June 28

    Kansas Smitty's House Band | kansassmittys.com 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.: Geva Theatre Center – Wilson Stage | (Straight-ahead jazz)

  • Interview: Cha Wa

    The music of New Orleans band Cha Wa is a party in itself, a joyful collision of brass band music, funk, soul, and Mardi Gras Indian music and culture. The group is led by singer J'Wan Boudreaux and drummer Joe Gelini, both of whom learned from the preeminent musician Monk Boudreaux, Big Chief of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe Golden Eagles and J'Wan's grandfather.

  • The Players: Saturday, June 29

    Acoustic Alchemy | acousticalchemy.co.uk 5:30 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.: Geva Theatre Center – Wilson Stage | (Smooth jazz)

  • Jazz Fest 2019: CITY's Daily Jazz Blogs

    The 2019 CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival runs from Friday, June 21, through Saturday, June 29, and CITY Newspaper will be out every night of the festival, covering multiple shows. Check back each day for reviews, photos and video of each nights festivities.