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 recontextualizes 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.