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“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview”

Michael Lington


Like most instrumental artists searching for the perfect title to capture their fresh vibe, Michael Lington thought long and hard about the best way to describe his explosive, freewheeling immersion into the heart of the 60’s and 70’s Memphis soul vibe on his career shifting new album. After years of wowing and seducing urban jazz fans with infectious melodies, rich emotion and funky grooves, only one phrase could describe that powerful innate force the saxophonist brings to the studio and stage: Soul Appeal.

All of the beloved saxophonist’s seven previous acclaimed albums, countless hit radio singles and hundreds of awe inspiring live performances over the past 15 years are now simply prelude to the fresh energy and live in the studio excitement he created at Los Angeles’ legendary Sunset Sound with veteran R&B/pop producer Barry J. Eastmond (who played Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer and piano) and a handpicked group of his favorite musicians.

If his fans around the world sense something regal about Michael Lington, it’s no doubt due to the upscale company he keeps. One of the most popular and charismatic saxophonists on the contemporary jazz scene since the late 90s, Lington—whose stepfather was a drum major for the Queen’s guard and was knighted earlier in the 2000s--performed in his hometown of Copehagen at the Queen of Denmark’s 50th Birthday celebration, and was later invited to perform the first dance at the wedding reception of the Crown Prince Frederick, the country’s future king, at the Fredensborg castle. In 2009, he was commissioned to perform for Denmark’s Prince Henrik in celebration of the Prince’s 75th birthday.

JazzMonthly: The first words that came to mind when I heard Soul Appeal were, “Wow, what a cool departure!” What inspired this project?

ML: That was my entire intent, to kind of throw the old book away and revisit my roots. I grew up in Denmark, but American R&B and funk was the music I loved that made me want to play the sax. It is part of my soul. Doing this album felt very natural to me and my approach to playing was very different from anything I had ever done. It was like entering a world where I didn’t know what was going to happen from day to day. I had never tracked with a live band before and that made a huge difference. I was there the whole time in the trenches with the band, playing or working out arrangements and parts. I am most proud of the fact that what you hear from me on Soul Appeal is 100 percent from these tracking dates.

JM: So you recording all your previous hit albums using a different process? Do those have more overdubbing?

ML: Most of them I would record in different steps, starting with tracks on a drum machine, which I would then replace with real bass and drums. They usually happen in stages. I have done live tracking dates with rhythm sections before, but because I’ve always been such a perfectionist, what tended to happen was that I would go back and re-record my sax. This time, in the spirit of the old school vibe, I wanted to completely let go, open up and let it flow all the way. If something didn’t feel right, I could worry about it later, but the point was to create a recording that would be all about feel and vibe. That means it didn’t have to be perfect and polished, but just feel great.

Our mission statement was all about that feeling, and that allowed for way more improvisation, stating the melody a lot looser and discovering things about myself that I didn’t know. I learned what I was capable of as a player like never before. When I listened back to some of the performances I didn’t recognize my typical self in the way I approached the melodies and solos. I was doing things I had never done before. It was like opening the creative faucet and letting things come out. I played much freer with none of the previous parameters in place, and the result is an album that’s much more spontaneous and organic.

JM: I know your first instrument was clarinet and you trained classically. Who were some of the classic soul and jazz artists that particularly inspired you to switch to saxophone at 15?

ML: What was cool about the 80s was that there were no formats on European radio. Music was just music and no one had to conform to any set style. So I could hear a lot of things. I fell in love with King Curtis, Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn. Then I got into Junior Walker & The All-Stars, and from there classic soul singers like Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. Then I discovered Ray Charles and Phil Woods. I noticed that when you listen to R&B and R&B influenced jazz that came out from the 60s to the 80s, there was a lot of improvisation and spontaneous musicianship. There was a vibe and energy that really changed my whole perception of music after a childhood studying classical and playing in traditional bands. I had a lot of catching up to do!

JM: I love the re-workings you did of the King Curtis classics “In The Pocket” and “Memphis Soul Stew,” but one of the most remarkable aspects of Soul Appeal is that you didn’t go the easy route of just doing a full cover album. Instead, you have nine originals you co-wrote with Barry Eastmond.

ML: These songs have the vibe of the classic Memphis soul sound musically and stylistically but I didn’t want to just do a Stax cover record. We wrote 29 songs for the project and ended up using nine for the album, and that meant a long, but very rewarding process. There was never a doubt about doing an album of mostly originals. I really wanted to challenge myself to pay attention to the instrumentation and production of those old records and then apply that sound to the best of our new songs. What I quickly realized was that the best old soul songs were based on one to three chords, very simply constructed. Trying to write melodies over simple progressions was difficult. 

JM: Barry Eastmond has worked with some of the top names in the R&B and urban jazz world – Dave Koz, Anita Baker, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Jonathan Butler, Jeffery Osborne, Yolanda Adams, etc. Aside from his great resume, what made him the best producer for Soul Appeal?

ML: I was on a tour with Michael Bolton and we played Tarrytown, New York, where Barry lives and has a studio. I had always wanted to work with him but had never met him. He met me backstage and told me he always was hoping to work with me on a project too. We didn’t start out with a specific concept, but started emailing digital files of musical ideas to each other while I was still on the tour. Then I took a trip to his studio to start writing with him. We actually went through a lot of different styles, but didn’t really have a theme or driving force. I felt the material was good but it was missing something unique and different. I said we should try to write new material in the style of that classic soul era, stuff that came from the Junior Walker-King Curtis school. Once we did, things clicked and we got on a roll. I went back on the road with Bolton in 2012 and once again we did a lot of digital exchanges – only now we had a concept. The synergy felt right.  

JM: I like your handpicked group of musicians, too – the core pocket of Freddie Washington (bass) and Teddy Campbell (drums), organist Shedrick Mitchell (from Maxwell’s band), rhythm guitarists Paul Jackson, Jr. and Ray Parker, Jr., lead guitarist Phil Hamilton and percussionist Lenny Castro. How did you choose that ensemble?

ML: I look at an album like I’m casting a movie, from producer to executive producer to studio engineer to the musicians. Once we had the idea and the mission, I knew instinctively how to fill in those blanks and who could best create the vibe Barry and I were going for. Teddy’s been on many of my previous records and it was great switching off between Ray and Paul. It’s great to have consistency but also variety. Ray Bardani is a great engineer who worked with Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, including my favorite Sanborn album Voyeur. I knew he could put my sax in an environment that would make it sound like never before.

JM: I understand also that you had an unexpected special guest show up and hang out with you guys.

ML: Halfway through the first day, Steve Perry from Journey showed up – and he never left. He is friends with Barry and he hung out for the entire project, including all the recording and mixing. It was amazing spending our lunch breaks with him, listening to him singing Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke songs. He said something about the music just touched him. He called me later and told me that I, through this music, helped him find his emotional compass. It was a special experience having him there.

JM: Your fans have also supported your venture into the cigar business these past years (www.michaellington.com/cigars/). Tell me about how that started and where they are available.

ML: I’ve enjoyed smoking cigars for 20 years and when I was on the Dave Koz Cruise in 2006, he asked each artist to create an onboard event that would create intimacy with the fans. I thought it would be fun to do a cigar party, and I recorded a traditional jazz CD to play as the soundtrack to create a smokey New York jazz club feel. I have friends in the tobacco industry, but they said to create a special cigar blend for that event, I would have to order 2,000 cigars minimum. My friend Kevin Paige, who owns several retail tobacco stores, helped me put the deal together and we created our own cigar, which sold well on the cruise. Later we decided to create a business out of it and so now there is a small line of Michael Lington Cigars. We make different sizes. The first ones were made in Nicaragua and now they are from Honduras. They are available on the website and also at special cigar night events I host at events like Brian Culbertson’s Napa Jazz Getaway and other wineries.

JM: Finally, as if you didn’t have enough on your plate, you are now in the wine business!

ML: That’s really exciting for me. A year and a half ago, I got a call from Tom Baer, a winemaker at Solana Cellars in Paso Robles, California. He said he liked what I had done with my cigar line and wondered if I wanted to do a joint venture on a signature wine with his winery. Solana is a boutique winery but a huge grower of rapes for the entire region. I immediately agreed and we have since created two wines – Lington Trio, a red wine made of 60% Malbec, 30% Petit Verdot and 10% Petite Sirah, like a Bordeaux style blend, and Lington Soloist, a Paso Robles Viognier (white wine) with an apricot and peach aroma. I’ve always been passionate about wine but now I see all the work that goes into making it, from the planting of vines to harvesting of grapes and beyond. It is currently available on the www.lingtonwines.com website, Spaghettini Fine Dining and Entertainment in Seal Beach and opening soon in Beverly Hills, and Nic’s Beverly Hills, a cool restaurant and martini bar. It’s a brand new venture and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.