Karlsberg, 28, is a soft-spoken guy in a striped cap who looks much like the students congregating in the coffee shop where we meet. His quiet and unassuming presence gives no clue to the strange, exotic terrain you will traverse as soon as his hands hit the keyboard.
A Cincinnati native, Karlsberg has been playing piano since the age of 5. After briefly considering a major in physics, Karlsberg decided to pursue a future in music. He completed both a B.A. in 2001 and an M.A. in 2007 in Piano Jazz performance at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Between degrees, he took up teaching music. His livelihood is completely devoted to and dependent on music. When asked if he sees himself doing this for the rest of his life, he says, "I hope to."
Not that it's easy. Karlsberg describes his routine -- no routine. Like many musicians, he has no steady paycheck. He often teaches during the evenings, but apart from that, his gigs are unpredictable.
"This past weekend I did three different wedding things: a rehearsal dinner, a reception and a bridal shower with different groups," he says.
"The night before, I played at Rohs Street (Café) with Steve Whipple's group. Last weekend was busy, but this weekend, I only have one thing. There's no typical, it's completely random."
On a financial level, that means it's hard to pay the bills.
On another level, however, this lifestyle mirrors Dan's musical approach -- always a surprise. Steve Whipple on bass and Anthony Lee, Jr. on drums complete the trio and together they weave a tapestry of varying shades and textures that shift color depending on the angle from which they are viewed.
Like many local Jazz musicians, they met at the Tuesday jam sessions at The Greenwich in Walnut Hills. This is a post that is handed down Jazz generations from one torchbearer to the next, and Karlsberg ran the shows for a while as the house pianist. He invited Whipple to join him as house bassist at one point, and Lee sat in from time to time. It was there that Karlsberg realized they should work together more often.
Creating a project was one way to facilitate that, as well as to find an outlet for his own compositions.
"Most of the stuff I do is as a sideman," Karlsberg says. "This project is the first thing (where) I'm trying to do more stuff that's my own. I did this (CD) project for three reasons. One, I wanted to have a way of promoting the group to play more. Two, I wanted to document the group because it was something I was proud of. Three, I'm never a leader for things. I don't really like being a leader but it means I get to play music I like to play."
The Adventures of the Dan Karlsberg Group combines Classical music and Folk tunes with many diverse influences, including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and even Willy Wonka. As an original project, the group naturally stands out from other straight-ahead Jazz combos in town, most of which focus on playing standards. There is another aspect to their playing, however, that distinguishes them even further -- their soloing style.
"When we improvise," says Karlsberg, "we also improvise with tempo and style. Those are things that aren't usually dynamic. Usually those are static things in a song. Meter, tempo, it's very elastic. Most of the time we don't know where anything is going. ... It's almost like each song is its own little adventure."
Listening to the first track, "Monk's Dance," which was based off a Coltrane theme on a bootleg 1965 record, you can hear this for yourself. Their performance is fluid, seamless, organic. Imagine the cells of your body and their strange illogical rhythm as they move, pulse and communicate. The ensemble creates edge-of-your seat music, truly spontaneous.
"It can come across as being more avant-garde," Karlsberg says. "People like it 'cause it's exciting. It usually has a lot of energy, which is important. That's one of the things people relate to. But I'm always afraid -- I never know exactly what people think of it, because to me some things sound just normal. I always enjoy listening to music that confuses me. I like listening to things that don't make sense; I like to try and figure it out."
With entertainment options ever-expanding, Karlsberg says his feelings about Jazz are mixed.
"There's amazing music being made, (but) as far as opportunities to be a Jazz musician locally or just in general, its tougher and tougher," he says. "I think the state of live music and the music business is changing drastically. People have plenty of entertainment at home and don't always go out and do things -- including myself. I have a hard time going out, 'cause usually I'm busy and when I'm not busy, I want to rest."
He smiles and adds, "I'm a little bit of a hermit."
THE DAN KARLSBERG GROUP plays Thursday at Rohs Street Cafe. Check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.