Her musical debut consisted of contributing vocals on Carla Bley’s albums Escalator Over the Hill (1971) and Tropic Appetites (1972). She then continued performing and recording on glockenspiel, organ and chromatic harmonica in many of Carla Bley’s ensembles and projects from 1977 on to the present.
She studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a scholarship from 1985-87. She moved back to New York City in 1987 where she formed her own ensemble to record her first two albums for the XtraWATT record label (distributed by ECM Records), My Cat Arnold (1989) and Get The Flu (1990). The band toured Europe several times and also appeared at venues in New York, on Dave Sanborn's NBC Night Music television show, and at the Montreal International Jazz Festival (1991). She recorded two more albums of her music, Farewell (XtraWATT, 1996) and Pet Project (Virgin Classics, 2000). In 2003 she collaborated with Robert Wyatt on his album Cuckooland, playing keyboards, singing and contributing three of her own compositions.
She has performed and recorded with a wide variety of musicians including Steve Swallow, Motohiko Hino, Michael Mantler, Terry Adams, Robbie Dupree, Artie Traum, Peter Blegvad, John Greaves, Chris Cutler, Dagmar Krause, Annie Whitehead, Anton Fier's band The Golden Palominos and Tony Scherr. She has also been featured in numerous Hal Willner productions.
She continues to work closely with Carla Bley as her copyist, art director and personal assistant. As well as creating the WATTxtraWATT web site, she has been the designer of every WATT and XtraWATT CD cover and booklet since 2003.
At the same time she has been working with her trio featuring bassist Kato Hideki and multi-instrumentalist Doug Wieselman. Her fifth recording as a leader, entitled Business Is Bad, has been released in June 2014 (XtraWATT/14).
as a leader:
- Business Is Bad (ECM/XtraWATT/14)
Karen Mantler (vocals, chromatic harmonica, piano), Doug Wieselman (guitar, bass clarinet), Kato Hideki (bass)
- Karen Mantler’s Pet Project (Virgin Classics)
Karen Mantler (organ, harmonica, piano, vocals), Eric Mingus (vocals), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Pablo Calogero (flute, baritone sax), Gary Valente (trombone), Carla Bley (C-melody sax), Hiram Bullock (guitar), Kato Hideki (electric bass), Arturo O'Farrill (organ, piano), Michael Evans (drums, glockenspiel)
- Farewell (ECM/XtraWATT/8)
Karen Mantler (vocals, harmonica, piano, organ, synthesizer, harmonium, glockenspiel), Mike Evans (drums, vibraphone, tabla, percussion, alto saxophone, vocals), Carla Bley (C-melody saxophone), Scott Williams (vocals)
- Karen Mantler And Her Cat Arnold Get The Flu (ECM/XtraWATT /5)
Karen Mantler (vocals, harmonica, organ), Eric Mingus (vocals), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Pablo Calogero (baritone saxophone, flute), Marc Muller (guitar), Steve Weisberg (keyboards), Jonathan Sanborn (bass), Ethan Winogrand (drums)
- My Cat Arnold (ECM/XtraWATT/3)
Karen Mantler (vocals, harmonica, organ, piano), Eric Mingus (vocals), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Pablo Calogero (baritone saxophone), Marc Muller (guitar), Steve Weisberg (synthesizers), Jonathan Sanborn (bass), Ethan Winogrand (drums)
- Appearing Nightly (Carla Bley – WATT/33)
- Verlaine (John Greaves – Harmonia Mundi)
- Looking For America (Carla Bley – WATT/31)
- Cuckooland (Robert Wyatt - Rycodisc)
- South Of Lafayette (Artie Traum - Roaring Stream Records)
- The School Of Understanding (Michael Mantler - ECM)
- The Carla Bley Big Band Goes To Church (Carla Bley - WATT/27)
- The Duplex Planet Radio Hour (David Greenberger - Carrot Top Records)
- Big Band Theory (Carla Bley - WATT/25)
- It's There (Motohiko Hino - Fun House/Gramavision)
- Folly Seeing All This (Michael Mantler - ECM)
- Sailing Stone (Motohiko Hino - Fun House/Gramavision)
- Swallow (Steve Swallow - XtraWATT/6)
- Carried Away (Robbie Dupree - Village Green/Gold Castle)
- The Very Big Carla Bley Band (Carla Bley - WATT/23)
- The Watt Works Family Album (WATT/22)
- Fleur Carnivore (Carla Bley - WATT/21)
- I Can't Stand Another Night... (Steve Weisberg - XtraWATT/1)
- Musique Mecanique (Carla Bley - WATT/9)
- Tropic Appetites (Carla Bley - WATT/1)
- Escalator Over The Hill (Carla Bley - JCOA/EOTH)