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 recorded 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.