Hear Me Out: Matt Slocum

By Lee Shook

Among the upper echelons of Birmingham’s elite musicians, there are secret weapons, and then there’s Matt Slocum. A classically trained pianist and master improviser whose cross-genre exercises have made him one of the most coveted hired guns in the music business, particularly on the Southern jamband scene, Slocum’s roots in Birmingham run deep and have helped pave the way for a remarkable career as both a collaborator and touring musician with some of today’s most celebrated artists, from Widespread Panic’s Jimmy Herring and blues chanteuse Susan Tedeschi, to The Black Crowes’ Rich Robinson and popular poly-Americana fusion group Railroad Earth. A phenomenally gifted keyboardist with a range of chops that have allowed him to effortlessly glide between everything from funk and jazz, to rock, gospel, bluegrass and beyond, Matt’s unique ability to serve both the song and musical conversation, in whatever format he finds himself in, has paid big dividends for his ever-growing resume, allowing him to travel the world doing what he loves to do best while staying connected to his adopted hometown.

Born in Newton, Massachusetts, Slocum first moved to Birmingham with his family at the age of four, where he would discover an early love of music through his mother and father before taking his first piano lessons at the age of seven. Moving back to Massachusetts just three years later to the town of Norwell, it was there that he would attend the renowned South Shore Conservatory, honing his musical skills while also playing in his middle school band under the tutelage of influential music teacher Paul Weller, who would encourage his burgeoning interest in jazz, theory and composition. Staying in the northeast for four years, he soon returned to Birmingham where he would land at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, continuing his studies as part of their advanced music program while also playing in high school rock bands. 

Leaving for Memphis following graduation with his band Midnight Rain, Slocum frustratingly returned to the Magic City a third time after just four months away. Later playing in local cover groups like the Elvis Willis Band, it wasn’t until 2002 that he would truly discover his place in the larger world of professional music after receiving a call from jamband icon Oteil Burbridge of Aquarium Rescue Unit/Allman Brothers fame—who was living in Birmingham at the time—to join his band Oteil and the Peacemakers. Featuring world class players like guitarist Mark Kimbrell and drummer Chris Fryar, the Peacemakers were a different beast altogether, mining a challenging repertoire of fusion-oriented jazz-funk that would make them one of the city’s most respected outfits of the early-2000s. Playing with the band for the next five years, the group would prove to be a gateway into a wider world of next-level musicianship, with Slocum being introduced to the likes of ARU alums Col. Bruce Hampton and Jimmy Herring, as well as guitarist Derek Trucks, all of whom he would go on to work with in a variety of settings over the years, establishing himself as a valuable member of any ensemble he lent his talents to. It was also through Burbridge that he would find himself reunited with an old acquaintance from his Norwell days in the form of Susan Tedeschi, who also grew up in the area and once babysat a young Slocum, joining her touring band in 2008 and recording the Grammy-nominated album Back to the River in 2009. 

“Playing with Oteil is what really jumpstarted me to play at a national, and eventually international, level with all of these musicians,” he says today looking back on Burbridge’s influence and impact on his career. And that may be an understatement. From performing alongside members of Hot Tuna and The Meters, to opening for BB King, and working with British guitar legend John McLaughlin, it’s been quite the musical journey. Having also maintained a long-running side gig as a professional piano tuner and repairman here in town, Slocum has dedicated himself to his instrument in a way few others have. 

Set to hit the road this September with a new Herring-led outfit called The 5 of 7— in a nod to the recently deceased Hampton— despite his busy schedule, Slocum still manages to find time to sit in on local gigs and recording sessions with friends around town, keeping him grounded in the city that helped shape his path. “There are so many great musicians in Birmingham. I wouldn’t be where I am today, I don’t believe, if I hadn’t come here,” he says. “Birmingham is a huge part of my career and upbringing. I mean, this is where I’m from. I know I was born in Massachusetts, but I’m from the South and from Birmingham.” And that’s exactly the way we want to keep it. 

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