In improvisational music, there’s a melodic concept called “playing the changes,” in which a soloist improvises a melody using notes in the tonality of the chords going by in a progression. Saxophonist and smooth jazz master Michael Lington has been improvising over the changes occurring in his own life: marriage, young family, moving from LA to a new community in Carlsbad, CA. Add the dissonance of creative doldrums, punch in a pandemic for good measure, and this Billboard chart-topping performer found himself staring at his horn, pondering his next move.
Lington has had a lot of success, starting in the ’90s on the LA session scene, on to a four-year stint in soul and R&B artist Bobby Caldwell’s band, and now an exceptional solo career that’s featured all kinds of chart appearances. He’s releasing a new EP next month, he’s back to gigging, and he’s loving parenthood. As a wise person once said, “Any note sounds good over any chord as long as it resolves well.” In this exclusive interview, “Lington 2.0” talks recording, the late Bobby Caldwell, and communicating without words.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: There’ve been a lot of changes in your life leading up to your new record, Looking Ahead.
Michael Lington: Yeah. Y’know I usually kind of know what my next album is going to be, but this time I didn’t really have a clear idea. And I started getting a little confused about my musical journey. The prospect of doing more of the same didn’t excite me. I wasn’t sure what direction I was going to go. Musically, I had to go back and re-listen to some of the things that got me into music in the first place. Then I literally just started with writing one song and recording one song. I started reaching out to people I hadn’t worked with before, to get some new influences and some renewed energy. This is the shortest album I’ve ever made, but it has the most weight for me, because it represents me navigating a new version of me really. But through the pandemic and then all of the personal changes, I started feeling clarity. So, it feels good to release this album – it just feels like I’m on the other side of those feelings.
Your original inspirations include Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn. What did you hear anew in that music that got you going this time?
It was pure for me. You go from the big-band era of the ’40s. Then you go to the Coltrane, Charlie Parker straight-ahead bebop of the ’50s and ’60s. But one of the pioneers in the late ’60s was [producer] Creed Taylor, who started CTI records. And the music they made, even though it has no lyrics, there was so much emotion in there. Whatever it was – Bob James, Seawind, Grover Washington – when I listen to those records, I just I get lost in them. There’s so much complexity within the music and sounds. And talk about performances; it’s amazing. I mean, [Gover Washington Jr’s] Winelight, right? Or listen to records like [David Sanborn’s] Voyeur or Hideaway. Or Al Jarreau. You know, it was so musical.
Was the CTI sound something you were going for on this recording?
I realize you don’t copy older stuff, you get inspired by it. You pull on those roots, and those are your parameters. On “Play” [first single from Looking Ahead] I worked with a great horn player and producer named Darren Rahn, and then another great horn player and producer David Mann for “Moon Goddess.” And they were influenced by that stuff, too. But I didn’t want it to sound dated; I wanted a modern version of that, different than a smooth jazz radio single.
Your new stuff sounds funkier, a little ballsier.
Right, exactly, has a little more of a brassy sound maybe, a little more going on in the changes. But still melody, you can’t get away from that. It’s like Steely Dan – they were complex when you look at the harmonic structure and the arrangements and performances, but the melody was still very singable, very memorable.
That’s a feature of smooth jazz that I’ve always liked. Melody is really out front.
At the end of the day, if you don’t have a melody, do you have a song really? What people take away is that melody, you have to have that center to take off from.
“Moon Goddess” is a great example. It has a great hook, and then you get out there with it, and it’s funky as hell. It’s true to the stuff you’ve been doing your whole career, but it’s definitely a different direction.
I’m glad you’re saying that because, you know, when you hear that intro guitar lick, you know something’s good gonna come. And I love that you don’t have to wait for anything. I like that, when it first starts, you know something’s about to go down.
And it does. You’ve really captured some great performances on this recording.
That’s a great compliment. I appreciate that because ultimately, that’s what I try to go for. There’s certainly been times in the past when I just didn’t reach that, for whatever reason. But the performance is really important on a song, because otherwise there’ll be no connection. You got to make people feel something.
What’s it like for you, either in the recording studio or on stage, when you find yourself in the flow, and nothing else matters? You’re just in it.
It is just such a beautiful exchange and conversation with an audience, and a moment in time when truly nothing else matters. You’re suspended in a very big, warm, fluffy blanket of love, you know? If you might have had any concern going into that show about anything in your life, it’s just not there anymore. It’s you just so in the moment, and you experience something so pure. I’m performing, but I can feel, I can see. I can see people’s expressions, I can see their body language, I can see them listening and feeling. It’s a conversation without words that I’m having with an audience, and it’s really a very, very beautiful thing.
Yeah. So, how do you approach communication in your creative process, getting the emotions and feeling across without words?
You have to evoke an emotion. You have to find a place where you are feeling what you’re doing. And in that process, other people will be feeling that too, but you have to dig kind of deep, because otherwise notes can just be notes. You have to try to find out an emotional thing within yourself as you perform this song, where you can kind of open the heart of other people and figure out a way to penetrate that, and let them feel that emotion that you’re feeling. It’s not easy to do, but I try to do that in my live show.
I’ve been very lucky so far that people are feeling that. But when I do [“Keri’s Song,” a new song written for his wife] in my show, everything must change. That is a moment that is my emotional peak. That song is so special to me that I always find that place, and it’s unbelievable. And sometimes I’ll see people with tears and I see the hole in their heart. It’s not necessarily sad, but it’s emotional. People always say, “That song, you know, it gets me every time.” And it gets me every time, you know, because I feel that too. So yeah, you just have to dig deep really, to find that place.
You worked with Bobby Caldwell, who recently passed. Tell me about the time that you spent with Bobby.
Bobby was a very special person to me. He gave me my start in the business. I’d moved to America [from Denmark] in the early ’90s. Bobby called me out of the blue, and ultimately hired me for his band. And then within the first couple of shows he said, “You need to make a record as soon as you can, before it gets too late.” He goes, “All my sax players have moved on to amazing solo careers. And I think you should do it too.” I took over from Boney James he took over from Dave Koz and Dave took over from Richard Elliot. We all feel we’re a part of a very cool club of sax players.
I ultimately got a record deal from touring with Bobby. Then we decided we were going to do a song together [Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is”] on my first album, and it became a massive hit. We were top twenty on the pop charts for over six weeks. I was on the countdowns with Dick Clark and Casey Kasem. We had it on the jazz and the pop charts. And I mean, that’s a pretty good beginning to a solo career, wouldn’t you say? Plus, Bobby was such an amazing songwriter, artist, musician, visionary. So he was very, very special.
What what are you hoping people will experience with your new music?
I hope that it leaves them with a sense of possibilities and optimism for what is ahead. Hope is really what you find in the darkness, that takes you out of a funk or takes you out of confusion. Without that, it just feels like it’s all very stagnant and very closed in. This journey inspired me to really embrace where I am now, and I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead of me. So hopefully, listening to this music, it’ll give people something to look ahead to, something positive to inspire them in some way. Yeah.
Keep up with Michael Lington at michaellington.com