Getting a song stuck in your head can be frustrating, but imagine if you believed your future
as a musician depended on getting it out.
As a graduate student, Toby Koenigsberg realized his challenge as a pianist was to stop
theorizing and intellectualizing and start playing from his heart instead of his mind.
That's what he was trying to do when his trio released his debut as a leader, "Push," last year
and that's what he believes he has done with his new album, "Sense," put out by Origin
Records and due for release tonight at Luna.
The Toby Koenigsberg Trio plays "downtown" jazz and bebop style.
"Rather than maintaining tradition's strict fidelity to a given piece's schedule of phrases and
sections, the trio uses its own inspiration to move around in its music," according to "Sense"
liner notes. "As is often the case in new music, it can be hard to tell which sections are
completely improvised and which have been previously constructed."
To improvise music well, you've got to be able to use your heart, Koenigsberg said.
"The emotional content is the only thing that is important in music," Koenigsberg said during
a recent interview in his office at the University of Oregon School of Music, where he is an
instructor. "It's the difference between playing something because you think it's going to
sound good and playing something because you feel it. It was a painful transition."
He likened the transition to seeking therapy - it's painful to unlearn the ways you have come
to do things, even when you are not satisfied with the results of the old way.
Though Koenigsberg chose all the compositions to play for "Sense," including one of his
own, he said all members of his trio have equal voice on the album.
Koenigsberg and Jason Pal- mer, the trio's drummer, have been friends for more than 15
years, since they were high school students and formed their first band. Tyler Abbott rounds
out the group, playing bass.
An influential teacher helped Koenigsberg, a 1992 graduate of South Eugene High School,
take to the piano at an early age. Eugene resident Elizabeth Muller-Lorish was that teacher
and he remembered how fun playing the piano was.
"I loved it immediately," Koenigsberg said. "She didn't have a critical bone in her body."
That was important for the budding piano player to gain traction in music, because he said his
feelings got hurt very easily when he was younger. Muller-Lorish stopped giving lessons to
focus on her family, and while Koenigsberg continued with other teachers, he didn't connect
with another for years.
His interest in music never waned, but he had no focus until he saw a middle school trumpet
player do a transcribed solo of a Dizzy Gillespie improvisation.
"I had this overwhelming sensation once I heard him do that," Koenigsberg said. "Seeing this
kid my age play this ... I wanted to do this so badly that it was a need."
His father, Larry Koenigsberg, a KLCC on-air radio host who wrote the liner notes for "Sense," began to teach his son to improvise jazz solos.
"But still I was kind of kicking around. I still had never had a teacher who inspired me since
(Muller-Lorish)," he said.
Enter Steve Owen, director of the jazz studies program at the UO. The two are now
colleagues, but when they met, Koenigsberg was a high school student at a music camp.
"I just sensed something about Steve Owen," he said, and he began to study with him,
practicing up to three hours a day. "It was the first time I got disciplined about something."
He went on to get a music degree at the UO, but was burned out on jazz piano and decided to
write screenplays instead of pursuing music immediately.
When he decided to return to music, he studied classical piano at Peabody Conservatory but
dropped out after one semester. He earned his masters degree from the Eastman School of
Music, where he received the Schirmer Award, given to the "most outstanding graduate jazz
performer in a graduating class," according to his artist bio on allaboutjazz.com.
Now that he has been able to "quiet the intellectual chatter," he said he is a much better
musician. This recording, Koenigsberg said, is superior to his debut in many ways. The
production value is higher and trio plays together more often than the trio from "Push,"
another key to accomplished improvisation in a trio.
"I like the title (`Sense') because it's evocative but nonspecific," he said. "For me the music is
a lot about that process of transitioning from intellectual and emotional and from thinking
things to sensing them. The album really sounds that way. I think we really captured that."