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.
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 site, www.mattfogg.com (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.”
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.”