“Karl Berger is one of the great visionaries of out time” Frederic Rzewski
"Strangely Familiar" is a masterpiecea, a brilliant balance of heart, mind and soul" John Zorn
Karl Berger’s unique piano playing dwells in a space that nobody else I've heard comes close to. If ever there was 'spontaneous composition', this is it. Larry Chernicoff
"Berger has a superb sense of touch, whether he plays keyboards or vibes. The lighter he plays, the better he gets: There is a wonderful tenderness to his piano" J. Hunter, CD Review
“The way Karl plays the vibes he should be president of the United States.” Dave Brubeck
The KARL BERGER IMPROVISERS ORCHESTRA:
“Karl Berger has been a pioneer in large-scale jazz improvisation longer than just about anybody, which explains why his Improvisers Orchestra swings as hard, and interestingly, and often hauntingly as they do…. Berger is an elegant and economical pianist, which informs how he conducts…. Like the best big bands, this crew use the entirety of their dynamic range. The ensemble weren’t often all playing at once, making those lush crescendos all the more towering and intense…, with the phantasmagorical sweep of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the rough-and-tumble bustle of the Mingus bands.” Alan Young, Lucid Culture, December 2012
Karl Berger “Strangely Familiar”, Tzadik Records
Posted on June 19, 2011 by tuneoutoptin
This review will appear in the July edition of The New York City Jazz Record.
“These days we live under the accelerating spell of being short on time, not having time, having to find time, making time,” writes Karl Berger in the notes to this masterful performance of seventeen miniature piano compositions. “So, please, hold that space for a moment. Just relax and listen. Let yourself go there — find your Music Mind.”
Berger’s invitation to enter what he describes as “a rare, quiet, natural state” where a listener can not only appreciate, but actually “participate in the spaces where I’m not playing,” is impossible to refuse from the opening notes of “miniature 1,” an elegiac and startlingly beautiful exploration of melody through a shifting landscape of rhythmic and harmonic color. Berger’s insistently focused right hand keeps the focus on the melodic line, while he continually re-contextualizes with light bass notes and tone clusters from the left, skirting the boundaries of traditional harmony and fixed tempo, but never getting in the way of the listener filling in the blanks.
Berger’s remarkable ability to blend spontaneous ideas into an intricate, but nearly always diaphanous, musical structure is what makes Strangely Familiar such an engaging listen from beginning to end. The melodies throughout the performances sound almost familiar in their utter simplicity and directness — “They are simply statements that want to happen,” the composer explains in his notes — but it is Berger’s commitment to them, and his meticulous integration of them into a larger piece that throws them into striking relief.
“miniature 8” finds the pianist running down an unfurling melodic line that keeps burbling up and over expected resting points. The selection — perhaps more than any other — is a striking distillation of Berger’s method as a composer and performer. The measured, but unpredictably meandering, melody is featured with the bare minimum of left hand accompaniment, pausing in mid-stride before blooming once again, only to halt on an unexpected note of consonance. The performance sounds more spontaneous the further you get into it, until the subtlest of themes reappears and a crystalline structure emerges right before a whispered ending.
In addition to Berger’s mastery as both a composer and pianist, a great deal of credit to the success of this album has to go to recording engineer and sound editor Ted Orr — a former student of Berger’s at the pianist’s famous Creative Music Studio in the late 1970’s, and a great musician in his own right — who manages to capture every nuance of Berger’s sound in a remarkably balanced and full recording. Recorded over two nights at the Kleinert/James Gallery in Berger’s longtime home of Woodstock, NY on a gorgeously resonant Steinway, the audio quality is stunning.
Spurred on, no doubt, by these felicitous factors, and his own limitless imagination as both a composer and a performer, Karl Berger has succeeded in producing a remarkable album. Strangely Familiar quietly demands an engaged listener, but it also richly rewards it in a way that only the best creative music can.
“Karl Berger brings the rhythms of Africa and the swing of Milt Jackson to a higher degree of improvisation on the vibes. Berger’s instrument is at once vividly imaginative and filled with the dance of magic.”
“Karl Berger’s a great pure player: without getting into stylistic pigeonholes and without any amplification, he delivers a constantly satisfying mixture of colorative nuances and straight ahead swing.”
“The entire performance was among the gentlest, most subtle examples of a new jazz one is likely to heard, and Berger’s leaps on vibes seemed to summarize the comfortable, affirmative sprit of the music.”
“This is music of great maturity and coolness....of a timesless and unpretentious beauty as one rarely encounters in today's jazz.”
“A work of unthought-of beauty; makes you listen, because it opens spaces in the stressful daily life of the post-modern age.”
“Candidate for CD of the year.”
“Berger writes wide-open, prairie-big tunes. He’s a minimalist who uses a spare vocabulary of melodies and ambiguous harmony to wrap his solos in different colors.”
Peter Watrous, Musician Magazine
“The thing that struck me as unusual about Karl Berger when I first heard him playing at the Mercer Arts Center in the 1970s was how much at home he sounded with some of the best young players in the New York jazz scene. To my ears then, most European jazz musicians were derivative at best, and often out of touch with the leading American improvisers. But this guy from Germany played as if he'd grown up in New York. How could that be?
Strongly influenced by Monk and Ornette, Karl Berger created a sound of his own, at once airy and precise, harmonically advanced yet anchored in a destinctive hard swing. He counterbalanced the inherently rich overtone range of the vibraphone by removing (accidentally at first) the vibrato mechanism. Building on a solid bebop base but ranging far afield melodically and harmonically, Berger's music sounded “free” but was set in an unfailingly rhythmic framework. Tempos might shift dramatically within the same composition, but they were always there. This meant that listeners coul lose themselves in the harmonic nuances and still feel grounded by the strong pulse of his playing, a pulse that was abetted by like-minded young players, including bassists Dave Holland, David Izenzon, and Henry Grimes and drummers Barry Altschul, Allen Blairman, and Ed Blackwell. A unique musical atmosphere characterized by lush harmonies, ethereal overtones, and precise rythmic propulsions continues to mark Karl Berger's music today. One the vibes especially, Karl floats like a butterfly, stings like bebop. He has the magical quality of being penetrating and clear at the same time tures are a constant suprise: the slightest touch of a cymbal beginning the title tune, or, later in the same piece, a contrapuntal guitar-bass duet in which the leads swings back and forth between the two. There and elsewhere Shigihara's guitar harks back to the smooth and stylish guitar solos of the forties and fifties. Or the pentatonic “Guitar Vibes” wich opens for a moment to reveal a trace of the melody from “Around”. From Thelonious Monk, Karl learned the value of “using dynamics and grace notes - grace notes are very important on piano and vibes.” And so in the midts of a swinging solo, or in a softly voiced duet, one note from the vibes will suddenly ring out alone like a brass gong in a silent meditation hall.
We shouldn't forget the compositions themselves, many of which for all their modernity already have the feel of old favorites, the kinds of melodies you might hum while leaving the theater - if you could just remember all their subtleties. This music is timeless in the best sense, and, in Duke Ellington's elegant phrase, “beyond category.” That is its blessing and its potential liability for the composer. The danger of playing music that is free of categorization, or what Karl calls “exercise pieces for a world beyond categories, based on rythmic and melodic parameters that you can find in almost any kind of music,” is that the musician may fail to end up in any easily marketed pigeonhole, But the sales department's loss is our gain. Because if we can never quite get used to Karl Berger's music, we can never get tired of listening to it either.”
Peter Occhiogrosse, Village Voice