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Composer/Arranger/Conductor Karl Berger

A Zen master relishes the here and now

Karl Berger
Karl Berger

Are you hot enough?” Karl Berger asked the nearly two dozen musicians packed sweatily into the cramped confines of The Stone one humid Monday night last August. From across the room Berger’s wife, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, cheekily countered, “Maybe we should all play naked.”

The clothes stayed on for the remainder of this particular performance, but in a sense any project in which Berger takes the helm involves playing naked. As a disciple of Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, as a sideman for Don Cherry’s early ventures into the fusion of jazz and world music, as the eccentric visionary behind the Woodstock-based Creative Music Studio, and now as mastermind and conductor of the Stone Workshop Orchestra, Berger has practiced and encouraged the art of opening oneself to the immediate, shrugging off preconceptions in order to hear the options inherent in the here and now. “I tell them two stories over and over,” Berger, 76, says during dinner a few blocks away prior to the performance. “The first one is about Ornette Coleman, who once in a rehearsal was approached by a musician who said, ‘Ornette, what do you want me to play on this piece?’ And Ornette said, ‘Play what you feel.’ Then he played and Ornette stopped him and said, ‘That’s not what you feel.’ This is a very important point, because a lot of musicians go on automatic.

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