“I started playing piano before I was 5,” Karlsberg says over cheese sticks and drinks at Willie’s Sports Cafe in West Chester. “I had two older sisters that were taking piano lessons; that probably encouraged me because I wanted to do what they were doing. At the same time, I loved everything about music. I could tell you the names of the instruments in an orchestra before I could read. My mom would try to trick me. She’d show me a picture of an oboe and say, ‘This is a cello, right?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, it’s an oboe.’ ”
Karlsberg’s lifelong pursuit on the black and whites defines the Dan Karlsberg Group’s sophomore album, Mission to Mars & Other Short Stories. Karlsberg is an improvisational player and his compositions are examples of studied spontaneity.
Like his 2007 debut, The Adventures of the Dan Karlsberg Group, the new album is built around the Group, which features bassist Steve Whipple, drummer Anthony “T” Lee and a host of guest contributions (including the stellar flute of Sandy Suskind). Karlsberg and his group clearly rise above the standard output of the Jazz piano trio. Karlsberg’s work shimmers with the elegance of Bill Evans, the bravado of Thelonious Monk and the quiet brilliance of McCoy Tyner, while Whipple and Lee comprise an incredibly supple and inventive rhythm section.
The Springdale native’s Jazz path began with a committed teacher who exposed him to a variety of styles and influences until something took hold. For Karlsberg, that something was Thomas “Fats” Waller.
“I took lessons from Carl Payne, who’s still around,” he says. “They were basically Classical lessons, but I didn’t really like Classical music. I gravitated toward doing a lot of things by ear. I would bring in video game themes or The Simpsons theme, things like that, and he would help me figure it out. Then in sixth grade, he brought in music by Fats Waller, who’s a stride piano player, and I instantly knew this was the music I wanted to work on.
It was a straight path toward Jazz.”
That path led Karlsberg to a B.A. at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music in 2001 and an M.A. in Piano Jazz Performance in 2007. To augment his sporadic session and local and regional live work, he began teaching private piano and composition lessons and in summer camp and occasional classroom settings, which remain a huge part of his schedule.
Karlsberg assembled his group around eight years ago, bringing fellow CCM student Whipple in on bass for the Monday night jam sessions he led at The Greenwich in Walnut Hills.
“Steve had never played upright bass before, so, technically on the instrument, it wasn’t very happening,” Karlsberg says. “But you could see his musicality and creativity. It didn’t take long for him to gain ability on his instrument and he took it very seriously.”
Whipple and Lee knew each other from CCM as well, and Karlsberg and Lee eventually played together in the group Inner Urge. That experience was the convincer for Karlsberg.
“T was a fantastic drummer, exactly along the lines of what I want to hear,” he says. “I knew those two would be people I wanted to work with, I knew it would be really cool. I didn’t realize that we would work so well together.”
The chemistry that exists among Karlsberg, Whipple and Lee is the engine that drives the Dan Karlsberg Group and is the key to its success. In an improvisational setting, the trio’s deeper connection allows for a kaleidoscopic range of possibilities.
“We’ve developed a very different approach to being a rhythm section,” Karlsberg says. “It’s very elastic. We can move between tempos and meters and styles, and none of it’s rehearsed. That’s the great thing about playing with people for such a long time. They both live in New York City now — I see them two or three times a year — and there could be three or four months in between and it doesn’t matter.”
Even though Karlsberg’s forte is improvisation, that shouldn’t be misconstrued as a substitution for forethought or structure. He had very distinct ideas in mind for Mission to Mars.
“My initial concept was that I wanted to highlight the rhythm section with a horn section and orchestrate and have different sounds for colors to complement what we were doing,” Karlsberg says. “There’s an album by Herbie Hancock called Speak Like a Child, and that was his concept. This album started that way, but it turned out that I wanted to use the horns more for various reasons. The other thing I wanted to focus on was my compositions and arrangements; the only ones that aren’t mine are Arnold Bax’s ‘Nereid’ and the song from South Pacific, ‘Bali Hai,’ which Jazz musicians don’t generally do. I don’t know why.”
The ostensible subtitle of Mission to Mars (available through iTunes, CDBaby and Amazon as well as at Karlsberg’s Web site) reveals another facet to Karlsberg’s creative process: his desire to weave a narrative into his atmospheric songs.
“When I compose, each song is more like a story,” says Karlsberg, whose work on Mission to Mars includes an ode to one of the greatest comedians of our time (“To Richard Pryor”) and a tribute to Lee’s restaurant methodology (“T Ordering Food”). “It’s about something, or the idea comes from something, or it’s a tribute to something. That’s why the title is Mission to Mars & Other Short Stories, because I consider it a collection of stories.”
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