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Karl Berger: Heart Is A Melody


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Karl Berger: Heart Is A Melody
Karl Berger, one of the more unsung and underrated jazz musicians of our time, passed away on April 9, 2023. He had just turned 88 years old. Berger released several dozen albums as a leader and scores more as a sideman. His discography reads like a Who's Who of modern jazz. He recorded with people such as Don Cherry, Bill Laswell, Carla Bley, Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz and John McLaughlin, among many more. Berger also arranged the strings on Jeff Buckley's album Grace (Columbia, 1994), which includes Buckley's classic version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

Berger first began playing the vibraphone at Cave 54, a small club in Heidelberg, and to paraphrase him, he immediately enjoyed playing an instrument that allowed him to move and even dance a little while playing—especially if and when the piano wasn't in tune. Admittedly not a student of the vibes, his approach was just different from everyone else's at the time. Then, he suddenly started winning jazz magazine polls: "Because I didn't know how to really play it."

All of these musical experiences, culled from over 60 years of playing, combined with his career as an educator and the co-founder with Ornette Coleman of the famous Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, coalesced into this superb career-summarizing final album, Heart Is A Melody, released just before his passing.

The album opens with an obscure Don Cherry composition, "Ganesh." It's a simple, groove-like vamp with Berger, on the Fender Rhodes, laying out the foundation. The rhythm section of Jay Anderson on bass and Matt Wilson on drums enters to push things forward awaiting the entrance of album co-leader Kirk Knuffke on cornet. This very accessible and fun opener sets the tone for the entire album.

The album explores many styles over its 10-song tracklist. "Before or Since" is reminiscent of "Miles Runs The Voodoo Down," only in a quartet setting with vibes instead of guitar. It is one of four tracks written by Knuffke. Knuffke's (who studied with Ornette Coleman for four years before being mentored by Butch Morris) abilities and approach to the various styles being played is stunning. "Could Hear You" has an old-school ECM records flavor, with Berger finding the spaces between the drums and bass, while Knuffke lays a Kenny Wheeler-type sound on top.

Berger's song, "Ornette," is exactly what you'd think it would be. The melody is classic Coleman circa the early 1960s. The band both imitates and expands on the sound and style of those compositions. Anderson and Wilson remind one of Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell while Knuffke plays Cherry-like angular and jagged lines, before soaring above it all. The two other Berger compositions on the record also invoke Coleman. "Why Not?" utilizes Berger's choice of melodica (reminiscent of Dewey Redman playing musette) to change the feel of the tune, while "Going Out" allows Wilson to stretch out on drums in between the statements of melody. "Gentle Giant" may be the most straight-ahead piece on the album. Anderson and Wilson are a force underneath, while Berger and Knuffke solo joyfully.

The title track and the album closer, "Heart Is A Melody of Time," is an inspired choice. It is a tune by Pharoah Sanders (with whom Berger led a band in 1970) that incorporates the theme used in both John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Sanders' "The Creator Has A Master Plan." It is a beautiful, spiritual song and one that summarizes both the record and Berger's life. This is a fully realized recording and a wonderful testament to a jazz icon.

Track Listing

Ganesh; Before Or Since; Couldnt Hear You; Ornette; Gentle Giant; Art; Why Not; Noble Heart; Going Out; Here Is A Melody Of Time.


Additional Instrumentation

Karl Berger: vibraphone, Rhodes, piano, Melodica.

Album information

Title: Heart Is A Melody | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: Self Produced



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