‘Enough of an achievement’: Rising jazz star Sasha Berliner talks artistic, personal perseverance

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Sasha Berliner, a 21-year-old vibraphone player, is making waves in the jazz world. The musician from the Bay Area, who won the LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award, recently played for the San Francisco Jazz Festival and is now performing internationally before returning to her base in New York City.

Berliner has been featured in several jazz newspapers and festivals, accumulating praise and building prestige. She is more focused, however, on developing herself and her sound than anything else.

“I’m not really one for awards or competitions,” Berliner said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s really hard to go into the jazz world at such a young age … being a woman and coming from a background that isn’t in jazz … (dealing with) the intimidation of New York City (and) personal mental health issues. I think overcoming all of that … feels like enough of an achievement.”

Despite these challenges, Berliner has found great success in the genre she finds so compelling. As a child, she dabbled in rock instead of jazz music, taking up the drums as her instrument of choice. In high school at the Oakland School for the Arts, she had to choose between pursuing jazz or classical music as a focus in her courses. Curious about jazz, she chose to explore it and fell in love.

I think that the harmonic power and exploration that has existed in jazz is beyond any other genre,” Berliner said. “It goes so many places, and it’s open to so many things. … (I love the) improvisation aspect as well — the idea that you’ll never play one song the same way twice, I love that. … It opens you up for a maximum amount of … emotional expression.”

Berliner has found various jazz artists to be inspired by for the creation of her own work. She admires Bobby Hutcherson, a fellow vibraphonist, for his risk-taking nature and devotion to evolving his artistry. Radiohead is another inspiration, again because of the band’s evolution over time. She has been most influenced, though, by jazz bass player Esperanza Spalding.

“(Spalding) does everything, and she’s not afraid to try new things and take the jazz world into places that it hasn’t really been,” Berliner said. “You can see her musical evolution throughout her records, and every record has a different nuance, a different concept. … (It’s) something that I’m absolutely interested in, someone who expresses their influence of many genres, but still with this jazz tethering to it.”

Berliner is incorporating both the combination of genres and the concept of growth into her upcoming second album, which is set to release in September. It is named Azalea after her favorite flower and in appreciation of the word’s phonetics. Berliner mentioned that she might have also chosen the name subliminally for the symbol of growth and blooming, since it is a coming-of-age album. 

“There’s going to be a lot of sort of genre-bending, a lot of mixed instrumentation; there’s a little bit of everything,” Berliner said. “You can hear the inspirations coming from many different places. … (I) want it to be able to convey whatever emotions I’m feeling. And I do think it goes through a spectrum of prominent memories or emotions that I’ve felt, particularly in the last couple of years.”

The album will document Berliner’s difficulties in moving to New York, which, ironically, was a pivotal point in facing the biggest challenge of her career thus far. The severe depression and anxiety that became prominent when she came to New York initially impeded Berliner’s development as a musician. Fortunately, the issue has been reduced after she changed her problematic thought processes, and she can now grow her sound in her new artistic project.

“I think the self-deprecating inner voice was a huge challenge for me,” Berliner said. “(It was) really difficult for me to shake for a really long time … but it’s something that I’ve definitely started to finally overcome in the past year.”

This devotion to improving herself goes beyond her mental health. Dedication to her artistry is what Berliner attributes to her success — focusing on continuous, sustainable growth has allowed her to reach rare levels of success for her age.

“When it comes to something like music, it doesn’t just take months — it takes years … of practicing, trying things and failing and getting back up,” Berliner said. “(It’s) a lifelong dedication, and it is challenging … (but) focusing on your own growth is way more important than whatever is going on with anyone else.”

Contact Dianna Piper at [email protected].

A previous version of this article stated that Berliner is 20 years old. In fact, she is 21 years old.