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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 jazzrock group Eiliff, with which he recorded two LPs and one single. In 1973 he joined the band of German jazz guitarist Volker Kriegel. From 1973 onwards he was also (until 1985) 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 Brüninghaus also played duo concerts with Manfred Schoof as well as performing 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 had specially composed as a commissioned work for that festival. The well known jazz critic Joachim-Ernst Behrendt wrote afterwards that he considered Brüninghaus to be one of the three leading German Jazz pianists.
In the 1980s Brüninghaus worked mainly as a bandleader, putting much effort into the realisation of 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 did worldwide tours, many of them for the German 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 a cooperation with Jan Garbarek started that still goes on. The Jan Garbarek Group did long tours throughout the world.
Brüninghaus has written music for symphony orchestra, Big bands, smaller ensembles and solo piano as well as for film and television. He was teaching at the music department of the University of Cologne (Musikhochschule) from 1984 to 1992 lecturing on the piano. From his didactic activities, many essays on music theory were published in a number of musical magazines. He was for a long time a member of the artistic advisory board of the UDJ (association of German Jazz musicians).
Since the beginning of 2011 Brüninghaus has frequently played grand piano solo concerts again.
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’.
- Freigeweht, (ECM, 1980)
- Continuum (ECM, 1983)
- Shadows & Smiles Rainer Brüninghaus album with Manfred Schoof (Wergo, 1988)
With Jan Garbarek
- 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
- Wolf Kampmann Reclams Jazzlexikon Stuttgart, Reclam 2003; ISBN 3-15-010528-5
- Martin Kunzler, Jazz-Lexikon Bd. 1. Reinbek 2002; ISBN 3-499-16512-0