The Jazzman of Orr’s Island: Matt Fogg Steps Quietly Into The Limelight

from Coastal Journal – Issue 34: August 25, 2005 by Earl Swinson

HARPSWELL – Can you remember the day your life’s path changed?

Jazz pianist Matt Fogg of Orr’s Island can.

Fogg’s CD, Live at the Azure Cafe, recorded with vocalist Nicole Hajj and a quartet of backing musicians, has garnered such glowing reviews – Good Times magazine said it “could be the finest disc of any genre produced in Maine this year” – that one might assume the piano and/or jazz has been his passion for as long as he could remember.

Not so, according to the extremely affable and almost alarmingly modest 26-year old.

Fogg, who hails from Biddeford, turned to music because “I wasn’t very good at sports. I was awkward and overweight, and my parents got tired of seeing me in tears every week from football or Little League.

“But in the fourth grade, I saw my school’s fifth grade band concert, and I can remember the day very clearly. They were doing the theme from M*A*S*H, and they weren’t doing very good, but I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard.”

Fogg said his parents were always very supportive (even of his less than stellar athletic career), so his father took him to a pawn shop, and Matt came home with a trumpet. He’s not sure why he chose a trumpet, but does recall that he wanted to play in the school band, and that limited his instrumental options. Matt joined the Middle School band but wasn’t exactly another Louis Armstrong.

“I was truly terrible at it,” he laughs, “but fortunately that was not a harbinger.”

He continued playing the trumpet into high school, eventually auditioning for a spot in the Southern Maine Music Festival. He didn’t make it, but as he was leaving the building, he heard the jazz auditions in another room.

“I poked my head in,” Matt recalls, “and they were having a great time, and I told myself, ‘I gotta get hip to this.’”

He noticed there was no trumpet players evident and knew that the piano was a preferred instrument for jazz ensembles, and he realized it might be time for a change.

Setting the trumpet aside

“We had a piano at home and I used to bang on it and even had about a summer’s worth of lessons in elementary school,” Matt says. “And the day after seeing the jazz auditions, I went to my hip band director (Terry White) and asked, ‘What do I have to do to get good enough to play piano for them?’” White led him to instructor Alex Johns of Portland and, at the age of 16, Matt Fogg began his piano playing career – and made the Music Festival the very next year.

Now – ten years later – Fogg’s technical ability on the ivories is nothing short of astonishing, as evidenced on the Azure Cafe recording. But for many listeners and reviewers, it is his talent as an arranger (JazzNow says, “He is an exceptionally gifted arranger, capable of making the oldest standards sound contemporary and fresh”) that sets Fogg apart. While admitting he seems to have an ear for harmony, Matt says his approach to music and arranging can be traced to a music history class at the University of New Hampshire, where he continued his musical education after graduating from Biddeford High School.

“The teacher was a real purist,” he says, “and he asked if we could name any good 20th century composers. A friend said, ‘John Williams’ (the legendary composer for Star Wars and many other Hollywood blockbusters), and the teacher just ridiculed him.

“After that,” Matt continues, “I decided I was not going to deny the music I like.

“I’m usually influenced by pop music,” he says, naming sources from 60′s Motown to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys to the 80′s Toto to Ben Folds, who Fogg likens to a “modern Burt Bacharach.”

“I like to take a few pop hooks,” he says, “and incorporate them into my arrangements to make the songs more accessible.

“I also like to explore the way certain sonorities can actually elicit a physical response – anything to elevate the mood.”

It was at UNH that Fogg met fellow student Hajj of Andover, Mass. Hajj was a classical piano major and had no real experience singing jazz and she asked Fogg to back her for a school recording project.

Discovering a voice

“That’s when I realized she could sing,” Matt says, and he began doing her vocal arrangements. Before long they had compiled an extensive repertoire of songs, and by senior year they were performing together commercially – Fogg citing the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport as their first steady gig.

The partnership has continued to this day, but both have also had to take on “day jobs” to supplement their jazz careers. For Fogg, that meant teaching, both as a private piano instructor and as a public school teacher. After student teaching in Old Town, he knew he wanted to teach at the high school level. He sent out the usual spate of applications but was invited for just one interview – at Morse High School. That turned out to be enough, as he was hired as the school’s choral director in 2001, a position he kept for three years.

“It was a great experience,” he recalls, “and I tried to do as many things with it as I could (including starting a Music Boosters program).”

But ultimately, it wasn’t enough, Matt realized.

“I was actually pretty depressed,” he admits, “and it was because for 25 years I had done what I was supposed to do. But having a job, and a credit card, and buying things – it wasn’t working for me.

“I knew I had to do what I loved, and that was playing music.”

But something else was happening at the same time.

While still at Morse, Fogg was hired as the Sacred Arts Coordinator at the Bath United Church of Christ on Congress Street. It was initially a part-time position, but his enthusiasm for spreading the joys of music just took over, and as he says, “There was so much stuff to do, that it became a full-time position.”

So he left Morse in 2004 to concentrate on his duties at the church, which included directing the choir, establishing a coffeehouse and fostering musical education at the church and in the community. Fogg’s work at the church led to his introduction to Taize, a monastic community in Southern France which was established to promote a reconciliation of Christian beliefs and practices; and he has incorporated that goal into his work in Bath, offering Taize services as part of his education program.

“One of the features of the service is sitting together and singing these very simple, almost chant-like songs,” he notes. “At the very least, you learn to relax for that one hour.”

But even with this new undertaking and his continuing performing career, there were still a few spare hours left in Matt’s weekly calendar, so he became a jazz instructor at Bowdoin College and a director of the Jewish Youth Chorus of Maine through the Jewish Community Center.

“I am a Christian,” Matt continues, “but even beyond that, I’m a student of Faith, and I find that I continue to learn from both churches.

“It all helps me in my dealing with people, and adds an element of spirituality in my approach to music. Music is the common denominator for so many amazing things.”

The church is also where Matt met Steve McKay of The Hermitage on Orr’s Island, and he credits McKay with helping him get where he is today.

A mentor builds confidence

“He’s been such a great influence on my attitude,” Fogg says. “He convinced me I was good enough to do this, to reach people.”

And it was that new-found attitude that culminated in the release of Live at the Azure Cafein January of this year. The CD was recorded October 28, 2004 at the Azure Cafe in Freeport and was produced by Fogg and mixed and mastered by Steve Drown of Portland.

“The CD was really several years in the making,” Fogg says, “and yet it was going to be a one-shot live recording, so I really wanted it to sound great.”

Backed by Shawn Boissonneault on drums, Lucas Cantor on guitar, Andy Rice on bass and with a guest appearance by clarinetist extraordinaire Brad Terry, Fogg got his wish.

This from JazzNow: “The CD is pure delight from start to finish, full of fresh musical surprises from the band and Hajj’s wonderful voice.

“But what truly puts it over the top are Fogg’s playing and arrangements.

“The music is highly accessible, rich without being overbearing with a modern sensibility that will appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners.

“This is a local group deserving of far wider recognition. Let’s hope they get it.

“If you live in the area or are traveling through New England, you should definitely check them out.”

And from Good Times: Live at the Azure Cafe is certainly a treat for contemporary jazz lovers – but is tuneful and accessible enough for music fans of any stripe to enjoy.

Azure Cafe proves these jazz musicians as talented as any performing today.

“It’s only a matter of time till this disc – and these musicians – break through on a national level.”

And what does Mr. Fogg think?

“It took me five months to really like it” he says.

The CD can be purchased at Magnolia in Bath, Bull Moose in Brunswick and elsewhere, at Borders in Portland, or through Fogg’s web (which also includes photos, a biography, reviews, and a calendar of his upcoming appearances).

What about the future?

While he will continue to perform with Hajj (as well as solo or with the quartet, depending on the venue), Fogg is currently working on a new CD project with new musicians, vocalist Cheri Gaudet-Grimmett and guitarist Scott Morgan. This time around, Matt is playing original tunes, and as he says, “My arranging has led me to being able to write melodies; but when it comes to lyrics, nothing happens. But Cheri is a great lyricist.”

He’s also expanding his instrumental inventory for the upcoming CD, playing a Hammond B3 organ, a Fender Rhodes piano, and “other vintage keyboards.”

Anything else?

He’ll keep playing live (he does his own booking), keep teaching; continue his church work, and anything else that piques his interest.

“I’ll keep doing what I do,” he says, “and taking it as it comes.

“It’s really all about taking what you’re given, and giving of yourself to others.”

He’s Biddeford’s Jazz Man

from The Journal Tribune; January 7, 2000 by Tammy Wells

Matthew Fogg was just 16 years old when he took a job as the piano player in a Top 40 band on weekends at the Red Jacket Inn in North Conway, N.H.

His parents gulped. But they bought him a car phone in case he had trouble driving home alone from the White Mountains.

“I was the youngest in the band,” Fogg, now 21, recalls about the six-month gig. “The rest of the group were in their 40s. Ladies tried to pick me up… It was a baptism by fire.”

Once, the band got a mid-week gig at The Big Easy blues club in Portland. He studied for a Spanish test at the bar during intermissions.

Now Fogg is in his thrid year in the Music Education Department at the University of New Hampshire. He is an accomplished jazz pianist who teaches elementary school students the basics of music, and still plays professional gigs.

He is also the first recipient of the Tommy Gallant Scholarship, established by Gallant’s family to help young jazz musicians through school and keep alive the memory of Gallant, who taught at the Berklee College of Music, Phillips Exeter Academy and UNH. He died of cancer at age 63 in 1998.

The Tommy Gallant Trio and the Tommy Gallant All-Stars were regular performers at the Press Room and the Metro in Portsmouth, N.H., and at Saunders in Rye Harbor, N.H. When the Portsmouth Jazz Festival floundered in 1996, Gallant and another musician, David Seiler of the UNH Jazz Band, revived the tradition by establishing the summer Seacoast Jazz Festival in Portsmouth’s Prescott Park.

When Fogg was a freshman at Biddeford High School, he had a chance to meet Gallant – an event that inspired the young musician – through the efforts of then band director Terry White.

“White took an interest in me and others, and invited us to a jam session at the Bridgeway Club in South Portland,” Fogg says. “I was listening to Don Doane on trombone and Tommy Gallant on piano and others. I was totally amazed. I said, ‘this guy is a pro.’

“It was great. When you see something that makes you so happy, you just smile and glow. I knew that was it. That was my life.”

When he was very young, Fogg took basic piano lessons from his grandmother. But he put piano aside in fifth grade, when he took trumpet in the school band program, and played the horn until eighth grade.

“I was really bad at it,” he says.

Fogg remembers auditioning on the trumpet at the Southern Maine Music Festival – “I didn’t make it” – and passing by the room where the jazz auditions were taking place.

“I thought, wow – what is this all about, with the piano and everything. I was mesmerized,” he says. “It was the kind of thing, you look at it and you know what you want to do.”

He asked White to help him learn jazz piano, and was able to study with the Portland musician Alex Johns for four years. After looking ar a couple of colleges, he chose UNH for its music education program.

Fogg was home in Biddeford during the university’s winter break, working for the city of Saco to help pay his college bills. For the past four summers he has been the pianist at Seascapes Restaurant in Cape Porpoise in the evening, and has worked as a landscaper during summer days.

Often, people don’t listen when he’s playing a restaurant engagement; it’s the nature of the work. They’re talking with their dinner companions, choosing from the menu.

“I used to be able to play for an hour before reaching my saturation point,” he says. “If no one’s listening, well, I go on auto pilot for a while and just play.”

Lately he says, he’s been trying to infuse some pop into jazz harmony.

“I love all kinds of music,” Fogg says. “I let it come out in my playing.”

Right now, he’s focused on finishing his undergraduate degree.

“I like the idea of having a master’s at 23 or 24,” he says, “I ought to do it while I have the energy.”

Then again, he went to a psychic to celebrate his 21st birthday. “She says within six months I would get an offer I couldn’t refuse, really far away,” Fogg says.

In the meantime, he’s plugging away at school and teaching music courses in Durham, N.H. Teaching elementary school youngsters began as part of his UNH program, but Fogg liked it, so he signed on to teach again.

“I love it, I love little kids,” he says.

The young ones have short attention spans, so his goal is mainly to have them keep the instrument playing as long as possible. With the other children, they can play and then you have a conversation, he says.

At the end of the classes, Fogg introduces students to constructive criticism.

“I want them to be specific, rather than just say it was good or bad,” he says.

Fogg, who used to practice six hours a day, is trying to work his own practice time up to four hours a day – although it’s tough during vacation when he’s lucky to get one. Nonetheless, he’s been doing some music arrangements and composing, writing his first voice arrangement and learning other instruments.

After a recent recording session, where musicians had taped tunes for UNH, Fogg and some other musicians held an informal jam session.

On the tape, Fogg is playing his piano while singer Julie Hardy belts out “My Foolish Heart”.

“This one really makes me smile,” he says. “There was no rehearsel, no nothing. It was the best thing we did.”