Berger began playing piano in his native Germany at the age of ten. As a young adult, he landed a gig as house pianist for jam sessions at Club 54 in Heidelberg. There he accompanied such visiting American players as Leo Wright, Lex Humphries, and Don Ellis, learning, in the process, the complexities of modern jazz. Eventually, he took up vibes and in the early '60s developed an interest in free jazz. As a vibist, Berger eschews the four-mallet technique; his style is all single-line with little (if any) chordal playing. His compositions are usually brief, song-like free-bop heads with free/modal solo sections sandwiched in between themes. His improvising style is apparent in his tunes: they're strongly, logically rhythmic, and (mostly) tied to tonal centers.
Berger earned a PhD in musicology in 1963; two years later, he joined Don Cherry's Paris-based quintet. The group traveled to New York in 1966 to record Symphony for Improvisers on Blue Note. Berger stayed in the U.S. and recorded his first album under his own name for ESP later that year. From 1967-1971, he played educational demonstrations in public schools with pianist Horace Arnold's group, and led his own ensembles. In 1972, he and Coleman formed the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. The school was geared toward encouraging young students to explore their own creative ideas rather than imposing traditional jazz concepts upon them. Teachers at the school included Jack DeJohnette, Sam Rivers, and Anthony Braxton, among many other prominent musicians. In the summer of 1982, Berger led a 28-piece big band at a "Jazz and World Music" concert as part of that year's Kool Jazz Festival in New York. Berger cut back on his teaching, shutting down the CMS facility in the mid-'80s, although workshops, live performances, and other activities have continued into the 21st century, with the latest version of the CMS having attained nonprofit status as part of the Creative Music Foundation. A major endeavor of the foundation has been the CMS Archive Project (undertaken in collaboration with the Columbia University Center of Jazz Studies), including a series of CDs of historic recordings from the studio's heyday, whose first volume saw limited-edition release to foundation members in February 2010, followed by a general release through Planet Arts Recordings in April of that year.
In the years immediately following the CMS' initial dissolution, however, Berger became more active as a player, first embarking on a world tour in 1985-1986, during which he served as a guest conductor and composer for the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne. Berger also participated in percussion festivals in New Delhi and Bombay, and served as a pianist in a duo with the African percussionist Baba Olatunji. Berger continued recording in subsequent years, although not prolifically, working as a sideman on sessions with guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Lee Konitz, and bassist Alan Silva. (He had also played on Carla Bley's late-'60s recording of Escalator Over the Hill.) Of Berger's later recordings as leader, 1987's Transit (with Ed Blackwell and Dave Holland) and 1990's Around -- both on Black Saint -- are well worth seeking out. During the '90s, Berger led several more dates for a variety of labels, and during the new millennium he emerged as an arranger, often working in conjunction with producer/bassist Bill Laswell, for pop/rock and world music artists including such notables as Jeff Buckley, Natalie Merchant, Better Than Ezra, the Cardigans, Shin Terai, and Angélique Kidjo. But he never stopped recording on his own. After the duo outing Karl Berger + Paul Shigihara for L+R in 1991, he reunited with Holland and Blackwell on Enja for the acclaimed Crystal Fire. In 1994 he cut the double-length Conversations for In+Out, a series of duos with Holland, James Blood Ulmer, Ray Anderson, Carlos Ward, Mark Feldman, and Ingrid Sertso. Berger spent the rest of the decade writing and leading workshops.
When he did resume recording under his own name, it was in a trio setting with saxophonist John Tchicai and bassist Vitold Rek on the globally acclaimed 2 X 2 in 2001, and five years later, he cut Duets 1 with bassist John Lindberg.
In 2010, Berger released his first album for Tzadik, comprising solo piano miniatures and titled The Strangely Familiar, as part of the label's prestigious Composer's Series. He also guested as a session player on Black Crowes' guitarist Rich Robinson's Through a Crooked Sun. In 2012, he and guitarist Dom Minasi released the acclaimed Synchronicity for Nacht Records. While 2013 saw Berger appear on recordings with Slide Hampton, Mossa Bildner, and Philip Gibbs, the following year saw Gently Unfamiliar, his sophomore date for Tzadik, in a trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Harvey Sorgen. Also in 2014, he commenced a touring and recording partnership with saxophonist Ivo Perelman that resulted in three acclaimed outings: Reverie as half of a duo, The Art of the Improv Trio, Vol. 1, which also included drummer Gerald Cleaver, and The Hitchhiker, another duo offering released in 2016. In between, Berger cut the double-length live and studio offering Moon with trumpeter Kurt Knuffke, for No Business. In 2018, at the age of 88, Berger issued Interfaces: Jazz Meets Electronics, where he played vibes in a trio with drummer Joe Hertenstein and electronicist Jeff Morris. Under his own name, Berger also issued In a Moment, his third outing for Tzadik with bassist Ken Filiano and a string quartet that included violist Jason Hwang, with whom he teamed for the duo set Conjure that was issued late in 2019. ~ Chris Kelsey, Rovi
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