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'Motorboat Bob' takes to the keys

Bob Toabe, a jazz pianist and deck hand at the MIT Sailing Pavillion, relaxes on the Charles River. Toabe will perform today (Oct. 8) in Killian Hall.
Bob Toabe, a jazz pianist and deck hand at the MIT Sailing Pavillion, relaxes on the Charles River. Toabe will perform today (Oct. 8) in Killian Hall.
Photo / Donna Coveney

No one familiar with sunlight shifting over the Boston skyline or the silver waters and sultry sails of the Charles River Basin would be surprised to find an artist at MIT's Sailing Pavilion. Tending docks there 40 hours a week is Bob Toabe, the North Shore jazz pianist slated to perform at noon today (Wednesday, Oct. 8) in Killian Hall as part of MIT's "Artists Behind the Desk" series.

Three years ago, Toabe was at MIT delivering his compact disc and music portfolio in hopes of landing a campus booking when he parked at the pavilion, wandered down to the docks, and found himself asking about a job. Sailing Master Fran Charles hired him that day, and since then the 50-year-old musician, aikido instructor, theater aficionado and sometime mime has also become known as "Motorboat Bob."

Toabe, who grew up on and around the water in Marblehead and New Hampshire, says what connects his artistic life with life on the Charles is "the natural shift from a mind state to a no-mind state." A natural consequence of both boating and music, he explains, is the "falling away" of his mind and ego.

"I try to let go of the world completely and enter deeply into an emotional state when I sit down at the piano," Toabe says. "I never say to myself, 'I'm going to practice, or I'm going to rehearse.' I just play. Emotional expression, delving deeply into inner feelings, is what creates the strongest art."

Toabe enjoys a broad range of jazz, classical and world music, but points to Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Claude Debussy as his main influences. He is a player who listens intently and keeps music in his head, not on a page. Toabe improvises until he likes what he hears; he may jot down a chord letter or slowly notate a melody, but mostly he just memorizes patterns and moods.

"I don't read music," Toabe says, describing his compositions as free-flowing and impressionistic. "I don't feel that I'm a crafted musician. I've never studied theory." And though the sound of his hands flying effortlessly over the keys suggests otherwise, Toabe adds, "I never think about technique."

Toabe started playing piano at five, successfully begged his mother for lessons at seven, and quit shortly afterward when he disliked his teacher. Then one day his fifth-grade music teacher heard Toabe improvising and encouraged him to play for the school. By high school graduation he had formed several improvisational groups.

Nowadays Toabe has regular restaurant gigs at Bono's in Newburyport and Boulevard Ocean View in Gloucester. He also has performed at The Acton Jazz Café, where a fan impressed by only two pieces once stepped forward to finance Toabe's first CD; and appears regularly at Inman Square's Zeitgeist Gallery, which recently hosted its Second Annual Piano Festival, featuring Toabe among its 25 up-and-coming players. Eric Jackson, of WGBH's "Jazz with Eric in the Evening," airs Toabe's music, which is available at Border's in the CambridgeSide Galleria.

For today's concert Toabe has planned a program of original compositions, improvisation and possibly some standards (listen for Bernstein's "Maria" and Rodgers' "My Favorite Things"). He is particularly excited to use the Steinway Concert Grand, which MIT will unlock for his performance. "It's one of the nicest pianos I've ever played," he raves. "It's in pristine condition. It only gets played during concerts." Toabe hopes the instrument will help audience members "come away feeling that their day has been changed and refreshed, that the world looks a little different."

Also in the works for Toabe's future is another CD, this time with German artist and Jamaica Plain resident Philipp Nedel, a Grammy award-winning harmonica player.

Beyond that, Toabe hopes to play more at health facilities, residential homes for the elderly, and possibly even Logan airport, where he would like to bring Boston musicians to its lobbies ("inherently stressful spaces," Toabe notes).

"Music and art should be a healing experience," says Toabe, who looks forward to sharing that experience with the MIT community. For more information, call 253-1612.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 2003.

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