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Hear a gemlike first single from 'Onyx,' the much-anticipated second album by Sasha Berliner

Adrien Tillmann

Perhaps you recall the moment, earlier this year, when the soothsayers warned about a “vibe shift.” They weren’t referring to Sasha Berliner — the musician voted Rising Star, Vibraphonist in a recent DownBeat Critics' Poll — but in some sense that would have fit.

Berliner, after all, belongs to a generation currently reshaping the parameters of improvised music from the inside. A talent to watch since her arrival in New York in 2016, she has made a strong impression on the scene here and beyond, in the company of mentor-collaborators like Nicholas Payton and Tyshawn Sorey. She was the first North American winner of the LetterOne Rising Stars Jazz Award, which propelled her trajectory as a bandleader, right around the time she released Azalea, her 2019 debut.

Now Berliner is about to release a much-anticipated follow-up, Onyx, on JMI Recordings. Due out on July 22, it sports an illustrious ensemble with Berliner on vibraphone, James Francies on piano and Fender Rhodes, Burniss Earl Travis II on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Among the album’s special guests is alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw; he appears on the opening track, “Jade,” which premieres here.

A dreamy composition that combines a post-bop harmonic palette with an abstracted hip-hop groove, replete with ghost triplets and a low-end drone, “Jade” perfectly centers Berliner’s voice as a young composer and bandleader in 2022. (She celebrated her 24th birthday earlier this week.) Her solo on vibes is buoyant and assured, with a sound that seems lightly processed with a chorus effect. It sets up Shaw for an earthier turn on alto, which prompts the rhythm section to lean forward and dig in.

Elsewhere on Onyx, Berliner explores new musical terrain both lyrical and combustible, welcoming additional contributions from vocalist Thana Alexa and keyboardist Julius Rodriguez. In addition to her own material, the album includes a two-part fantasia on the standard “My Funny Valentine,” suggesting both an anchoring tether to tradition and a slight departure from convention.

(c) Gulnara Khamatova
Gulnara Khamatova
(c) Gulnara Khamatova

Berliner produced Onyx with Steven Mandel, whose main gig is with The Roots; it was recorded direct to analog tape by engineer Ben Kane, who has worked closely with D’Angelo. When it’s released on July 22, the album will be issued on vinyl and in digital formats, but not available on CD. Format and technical aspects aside, the album is sure to nudge Berliner to a new tier of recognition as a solo artist. Like her contemporaries Joel Ross and Patricia Brennan, two other vibraphone dynamos to have received a heap of praise in recent seasons, Berliner is now advancing both the stature of the instrument and a broader compositional identity, in tune with our present moment.

“This was recorded in December 2020, so it’s safe to say the majority of these compositions and the energy behind the album emerged from a dark place in the pandemic, as well as a dark place within myself at the time about who I wanted to become,” Berliner recently noted on social media. “The opening up of crypticism and darkness to something very spiritual and powerful on the other end lends itself to the title ‘Onyx.’”

Sasha Berliner appears with the Tyshawn Sorey Quintet on Saturday at Princeton's McCarter Theater, and on July 2 in a Bobby Hutcherson tribute at the 50th anniversary Stanford Jazz Festival. She appears with Palladium, playing the music of Wayne Shorter, on Aug. 5 and 7 at the Birdland Theater in New York City.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.