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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by The Cell Theatre, courtesy of the artist.

Sasha Berliner is eager to show her range. Her dynamic range; her emotional range; her multi-instrumental and interdisciplinary range—she’s ready, with mallet in hand and message in mind. The percussionist and composer is gaining career traction as a force on the vibraphone. But she’s more interested in the movement of the music than the trajectory of her individual career.

This weekend, the SF JAZZ Rising Female Instrumentalist and her band join the lineup at FutureFest, the Gallery’s weekend-length event that provides a headlining platform for emerging voices in ensemble settings. Ahead of the hit, Berliner talks technique, mixed media exploration and the unique dynamic range of her instrument.

The Jazz Gallery: You use the MalletKAT quite often. What freedom have you found exploring different textures in your music?

Sasha Berliner: I really just think of the MalletKAT as a new way to interpret the vibraphone and add another element to my group. I wouldn’t really say it’s anything particularly new—people have been using synths and stuff for ages. But it has a very cool visual appeal. It’s obviously similar to the vibraphone in a way that keyboard isn’t. It uses technique that I’m more familiar with. I do like that I can use both MIDI sounds and the internal Kurzweil sounds at the same time; it creates a unique hybrid sound that adds a cool texture to my band. I’m not playing the MalletKAT at FutureFest, but I do use it with my other groups.

I’d say in terms of textures, it’s more about exploring several percussion instruments and being a multi-instrumentalist, experimenting with instrumentation.

TJG: As a listener, I’m drawn to the resonance that you seem to achieve sometimes by doing very little—playing then leaving space. How do of the different instrumental textures you use inform the resonance that you achieve or even your perception of resonance, either literally as in harmonically or more abstractly?

SB: I think about harmony a lot. I guess if you want to talk about resonance, there are certain chord qualities and certain intervals that you can use based on the overtone series. But this is also based on a lot of what I studied with Stefon Harris. You can get very specific about harmony and, therefore, very specific about emotions. You can sort of paint your experiences or what you’re trying to convey a little more specifically and vividly. So, in that sense, just having a better sense and control of harmony gets you closer to resonating more with your audience. That’s definitely something I think about.

In a more abstract way, resonance can convey a lot about the human experience, all the facets that are incorporated within that. Harmony and interpretations of notes are extremely diverse, just like all of our human experiences. Using that to correspond with what you have to say, what chord choices you make, what messages you want to convey, creates for a powerful narrative within your music.

TJG: You have the artistic advantage of having the drums as your first instrument. How do you feel your experience playing drums has influenced some of your harmonic tendencies or melodic development on the vibraphone and when you compose?

SB: I actually feel like the more that I play vibraphone and learn vibraphone the more I seem to interpret it and communicate with it differently than the drums. A lot of musicians, across instruments, they often say, “I have the same voice on each instrument.” But I actually feel like that’s not true for me. I feel like a lot of that has to do with the harmonic aspect of vibraphone, and the melodic aspect. I would definitely say that playing drums has sparked more of a rhythmic interest, especially in terms of incorporating a lot of polyrhythms and different percussion instruments, and it helps me more easily convey the kinds of rhythms and feels to whoever the drummer in my band is going to be. But I would definitely say it’s a little more exploring rhythm in a general sense—things like odd meter, polyrhythms again, cross rhythms. Being a drummer definitely helps me understand those kinds of things more, and employ them successfully in my band. But I wouldn’t say that’s all attributed to the drums.

TJG: And has the vibraphone transformed your drumming?

SB: Playing the vibraphone has helped my drumming. I do feel like that’s true. It’s helped me almost have a little more freedom with my phrasing on drums. I think you can easily get carried away with just the rhythmic aspect, the instrument not having a melodic or harmonic aspect, and you might feel more boxed in. But for some reason, vibraphone’s really helped me achieve that even in that absence of harmony or melody.

TJG: I’m curious when you’re putting together your own projects and ensembles, what in particular do you look for in a drummer?

SB: Definitely someone who listens and is very responsive. One of the hardest things with the vibraphone is that drummers need to be able to adapt to it and adapt to its sound because it can be hard to hear even with a microphone. That’s not to say that sometimes you can’t play loud with a vibraphone; you absolutely can. But in order for the dynamic range of the vibraphone to be heard, the drummer needs to have the ability to listen and to really come down and respond to it. A lot of drummers my age just like to play as loud as possible, and I’m always getting drowned out and compromising my technique—I don’t have permission to use a lot of dynamics because I can’t be heard. A lot of the extended technique, as well, is fairly quiet on vibraphone so a drummer who can adapt to that is really important. And a drummer who is willing to contribute ideas and take risks—cultivate their own voice, [is also important]. They’re not after their ego; they’re just trying to sound like themselves. And just someone who is a nice person, which goes for any member of my band, not just the drummer.

TJG: You mentioned a specificity to the dynamic range of the instrument, and when you have to compete with loud drummers, you have to compromise the integrity of your technique. When you find yourself in the position, what’s your strategy for resolving or confronting that situation?

SB: In the moment, there’s honestly not much you can do. I’m not going to yell at someone to come down while I’m on the bandstand. You just have to play as loud as possible. Other band members can help me in getting the person to come down; maybe I can give them a slight look, but if they’re truly ignorant, that will just have to show in the music, and it’ll sound like the drummer’s not listening to me. That’ll sort of speak for itself. Definitely if I’m in rehearsal, I’ll speak up and say, “Hey, sometimes when I play or try to use this or that technique, it’s a little quieter than you might normally hear the vibraphone,” or “I’m trying to utilize both this very loud dynamic and this quieter dynamic and you need to accommodate for that because the vibraphone is way more quiet than any horn instrument, way more quiet than a keyboard that’s amplified or a bass that’s amplified.” You just speak up about it, and say it in a straightforward way.

TJG: I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Matana Roberts. We spoke about her extensive use of mixed media and how it relates to storytelling in the 21st century. What has drawn you to mixed mediums on your forthcoming release Azalea, and what can you say about how that gives you a new venue for storytelling?

SB: I’m just not super about labels or boxes or people who think you’re supposed to do this or that with your career, this or that with your music. I think whenever you hear something or see something or feel something is necessary, you feel that in your heart you have to do it. I’ve always been a writer. Not so much spoken word, but I’ve written a lot of essays, short stories, nonfiction, memoir-style to poetry—everything in between. I guess I was struggling to feel like people could see that side of me; I feel like people only saw me as a musician and I wanted them to see me more as a multidisciplinary artist.

I figured [Azalea] would be a great opportunity to share my writing, so the album will definitely incorporate some of my poetry or essay work. I will be doing spoken word for the first time, and I’m really excited about that. I think with a lot of modern art, it does require additional explanation, especially if you’re conveying a pretty big subject. You can use mixed medium to create a more elaborate story or a more detailed story. There’s something beautiful about leaving the audience to think about what that story might be, but if you do want to communicate something more specific, that is a great way to sort of refine your message.

I’ve also always been a very visual person, and I respond to visuals really strongly. That’s something that really informs my music and inspires my music; so I think, therefore, it deserves to be a part of my music.

TJG: So you’re going to be incorporating your original spoken word, and what is the visual component you’re working on at this point?

SB: Well that, I don’t know. That’s more in general; I don’t think it’s going to be specific to the album. I’d love to do some artwork on the inside of the CD, or something like that, and maybe I would want to work with a projector or something, but it’s more just for the future. It’s something that I’m very interested in. I’d love to write music for films—not necessarily film scoring with a full orchestra, or for cinematic suspense and things like that—more just the music that I already do, but tailored to a film or some sort of moving visual aspect. I think that’s really powerful. A lot of jazz artists, or jazz as you might call it, are doing that—Samora Pinderhughes and Jason Moran and people like that. Vijay [Iyer] has done that, and I was especially inspired by the film that he scored, Prashant Bhargava’s Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi. I actually did play percussion for that when The New School decided to showcase that work. It has this really immense effect of this sort of intersection of music and visuals and everything—audio even. It’s really cool.

TJG: Since we began to talk a little bit about the future, what is most meaningful about playing an event like FutureFest?

SB: I love being aside other young musicians, like myself, who are still in the process of discovering what their voice is and what they want to say. I think it’s cool to be sort of in the middle of that process, and see people in the middle of that process, and sort of observe their journeys along with your own personal journey. All these musicians are incredibly inspiring. They definitely help me to keep going and inspire me to keep writing. I just love being around them—it’s a good energy. We’re all very supportive of each other. So it’s just great to be there with a musical family, all after similar goals but interpreted in different ways.

TJG: One facet of the festival’s mission is to put the focus on the artist as an ensemble, and not the artist as an individual. What’s your connection to that mission?

SB: I think a lot of that has to do with a lot of young people—not anyone in this particular festival—fall under this illusion of music being this sort of egotistical and self-fulfilling thing. “I need to fulfill my personal agenda, and not anyone else’s, so I’m going to play as many chord substitutions as possible, as many 16th notes.” A lot of people say it’s a hyper-masculine thing; the allusion that’s used is “jacking off.” It’s sort of just getting off on yourself and what you have to say and what you have to contribute and not necessarily [caring] about how that affects the people around you, or what they might have to say to help you. It’s very ignorant and very far from what music has always been and what it’s supposed to be.

While a lot of the music [in my band] is mine, we do a lot of music from other band members; they give me helpful feedback and I don’t view myself as above them. Everyone in my band is a fair amount older than me, and I have a lot to learn from them. And vice versa. We’re on an equal playing field. I can’t speak for the other bands, but I pay my band members just as much as I pay myself; I’m not taking away any more. I’m not saying, “I’m the star of the show,” or anything because I don’t think I am. At least not with this group, and not in this case. It’s not my purpose, and I don’t think that should ever be the purpose of music. That’s not what it’s about.

TJG: Would you like to talk about your advocacy work? You spoke peripherally about how that influences your artistry, but did you want to say anything specific about that?

SB: It’s a very integral part of what I have to share with the world, and the experiences that I have—the certain particular struggles I’ve had to endure. A lot of those emotions come from it. A negative situation, a negative place, influences some of the things I want to fight for, or some of the things I feel like I need to be strong for. I think they are the things that have made me the person I am today. It’s everything from, if you want to talk about social justice, me as a woman or observing people around me who are people of color or of different backgrounds that get discriminated against for reasons that they can’t control and histories that they’ve had to fight so long to keep alive. Things like that—it’s just integral to the world around me. Especially when you play black American music like jazz, you just should know your place in that, and be able to advocate. Lives might be jeopardized by police brutality or blatant racism from our own president and our own government, our own prison system, etcetera. I just think it’s an integral part of your art, and I don’t see how you could not see it that way. And I think it’s important that you respond to that and you’re cognizant of that—and you don’t just say it, but you show it.

Sasha Berliner Quartet plays the third set at FutureFest this Saturday, September 29, 2018. The group features Ms. Berliner on vibraphones, Lucas Kadish on guitar, Nick Dunston on bass and Mareike Wiening on drums. Set three of FutureFest begins at 10 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved table seating ($20 for members) for the evening. Purchase tickets here.