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Featured Artist of the Month

March 2021 - Roger MacNaughton

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Roger MacNaughton

About Roger MacNaughton

Written by

Kyle Rasche

When Roger MacNaughton was seven years old, his first piano teacher described him as “okay, but obviously no genius.” This evidence suggests that perhaps our most reliable music critics are not teaching piano scales to seven-year old's. It didn’t bother Roger though… he was more interested in baseball anyway.

Music, however, begged to differ. By his 18th birthday, he had achieved bonafide band-geek status – shining on both clarinet and percussion, and was starring on keys in the locally revered rock outfit The Headhunters. His high school physics teacher went so far as to deter him from pursuing a science degree, urging him to accept a scholarship to the School of Music at Michigan State University, where he studied percussion and composition. This evidence suggests that maybe physics teachers have the real eye for talent after all.

MacNaughtons genius is no longer up for debate. He’s toured the US and Canada playing every genre of music imaginable. He’s been one of Michigan’s most reliable session pianists for the past 40 years. He has recorded countless jingles, written charts and cues for fellow musicians, and composed music for damn near everything music can be licensed for. Aquinas College’s music department has had him on staff for over 20 years. Over the course of writing, recording, and releasing 12 albums of his own – all to critical acclaim – he developed a keen ear and knack for the studio. His days of splicing tape have given way to the digital age and the Pro Tools rig he runs at Acoustic Arts Custom Music Production – the studio he owns and operates to this day.

It’s difficult to pin down exactly where on the musical spectrum MacNaughton fits, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. When asked about his affinity for Blues, Jazz, Classical, Rock, Soul, R&B, New Age, Motown, Singer/Songwriter, and even Yacht-Rock, he smiles and says “it’s a blessing and a curse. I want to play them all.”

Though seemingly indifferent to music genres, make no mistake, Roger MacNaughton is fastidious about who he plays with. His steadfast core of collaborators include Jon Montgomery (saxophone), Tami Hjelm (vocals), Susan Mora (violin), Charlie Hoats (bass), the late Steve VanRavenswaay (cello), Eddie Eicher (drums), Mike Hyde (guitar), and Steve Anzivino (drums). He says, “One of the things that really excites me about music is the sense of anticipation that I feel after writing something, and wondering what my musician friends will do with it. They always knock me out.”

2020 saw the release of his latest project “Mackinac, I’ve Come Home,” a stunning collection of songs composed on Mackinac Island during a two week artist-in-residence program back in 2019. Asked about his time on the island, he says he "took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place for two weeks, and decided to catalog the pieces written during that time with an album.” The result is a beautifully poignant portrait of timelessness, befitting an island that still looks exactly as it did as the backdrop of the period film “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeves (1980).

What stands out on “Mackinac…” is how MacNaughton utilizes his pallet of technique and texture to perfectly compliment his piano melodies. Soaring strings (Time Travelers), haunting cello (Mackinac Island Love Theme), and Hjelm’s soulful vocal (There’s Something About This Place) showcase this composer’s vast array of influences. For such a versatile musician, the record maintains a classical sensibility that makes it feel banded and distinct.  Simply stated, the record is a masterclass in style, composition, and songcraft.

When asked what’s next, MacNaughton obligatorily mentions promoting “Mackinac…” and his other endeavors, then shrugs and says, “I have over 100 pieces of music that are in various stages of completion.…” It’s almost as if he’s the only one that isn’t aware of how special he is. He’s the sort of musician that’s easy to root for; happiest behind his piano, somewhere off to the side, perfectly syncing his sonic contribution into the ethos…delighting all within earshot. But most importantly, further cementing the sacred musical kinship he shares with whomever he so happens to be performing with in that moment. As one of those fortunate collaborators, I can tell you this; Roger knocks us out too.

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