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Rainer Brüninghaus was educated in classical piano, playing from the age of 9, and founded his first jazz trio when he was 16. From 1968 to 1972 he studied sociology at the University of Cologne and music from 1971 to 1975. In 1970 he founded the experimental jazz rock group Eiliff, which recorded two albums and one single. In 1973 he joined the band of German jazz guitarist Volker Kriegel. From 1973–1985 he was a frequent guest in the jazz ensemble of Hessian Broadcasting Corporation (hr) and in the big band of Hessian Broadcasting Corporation, hr-Bigband.
In 1975 with bassist Eberhard Weber and Charlie Mariano he formed the band Colours. From 1977 onwards he played duo concerts with Manfred Schoof and in his quintet and big band. In 1976 Brüninghaus first played a piano solo concert on the Heidelberg Jazz Days Festival.
At the German Jazz Festival Frankfurt of 1978 he performed a suite of pieces lasting 50 minutes which he composed as a commissioned work for the festival. Jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote afterwards that he considered Brüninghaus one of the three leading German jazz pianists.
In the 1980s Brüninghaus worked mainly as a bandleader, putting effort into his own projects, for example Freigeweht with Kenny Wheeler and Jon Christensen (ECM). In 1981 he founded his own trio in which Markus Stockhausen and Fredy Studer played until the end of 1984. This group toured worldwide, often for the Goethe Institute. John Abercrombie and Trilok Gurtu joined the band in 1985, and for some of the performances, Charlie Mariano, Hugo Read, and Jo Thönes played in the band. In 1988 he began a long association with Jan Garbarek. He has also worked with Carla Bley, Bob Brookmeyer, Gary Burton, Bobby McFerrin, Jim Hall, Manu Katché, Albert Mangelsdorff, Paul McCandless, Alphonse Mouzon, Archie Shepp, and Steve Swallow.
Brüninghaus has written music for symphony orchestra, big bands, small ensembles, and solo piano, as well as for film and television. He taught piano at the University of Cologne (Musikhochschule) from 1984 to 1992. He has published essays on music theory and was a member of the artistic advisory board for the Union of German Jazz Musicians (Union Deutscher Jazzmusiker/UDJ).
Since 2011 he has frequently played solo concerts on grand piano.
The musician who became known in the field of fusion jazz favours subtle chord layering and widely varying melodic changes, but without neglecting the rhythmical flow. In jazz Brüninghaus is the most imaginative exponent of minimal art, and he connects in his improvisations and compositions repetitive minimalistic patterns, with a Jazz phrasing reminiscent of Bill Evans.
In 1983 Brüninghaus won the Jazz Award of Southwest German Radio and the country of Rhineland-Palatinate, which at that time was the only German jazz award.
In 1984 he won the Award of German Record Critics for his ECM album ‘Continuum’.
With Jan Garbarek
- Legend of the Seven Dreams (ECM, 1988)
- I Took Up the Runes (ECM, 1990)
- Twelve Moons (ECM, 1992)
- Visible World (ECM, 1995)
- Rites (ECM, 1998)
With Eberhard Weber
- The Colours of Chloë (ECM, 1973)
- Yellow Fields (ECM, 1975)
- The Following Morning (ECM, 1976)
- Silent Feet (ECM, 1977)
- Little Movements (ECM, 1980)
- Endless Days (ECM, 2001)
- Martin Kunzler
- Ulrich Olshausen
- Reclams Jazzlexikon