The slickest groove possibly ever comes from an original song by Michael J. Thomas called “Baby Coffee.” Thomas croons into the sax, giving it a suggestive throatiness while positivity floats over the melody, making it like audio crack. The hyper-energetic “Girl’s Got Move” showcases his satiny voice and “Make Me Crazy” has a rhythmic play and harmonies that could easily lead to a Latin feel but pulls back into smootherating territory. “Amante Del Vino” has all the ingredients of a tasty, mellow glass of red.
No stranger to the top of Billboard’s list, Michael J. Thomas makes it all look effortless; obviously he has an innate understanding of how to develop a melody while continuing to deliver fresh and creative ideas.
First jazz song you ever remember hearing?
My introduction to contemporary jazz came in a promotional disc with my dad’s purchase of his Technics stereo. The first song was an uptempo tune by David Benoit titled “Freedom of Midnight.” The second song was “Street Life” by The Crusaders. Not a bad way to be introduced to this music.
I recently rediscovered this CD while “Tidying Up”- the Marie Kondo craze from the show on Netflix about organizing your home. What I never paid attention to until now is that JAZZIZ Magazine was the partnered company with Technics featuring GRP recording artists. It’s a compilation disc of David Benoit, The Crusaders, The Rippingtons, Spyro Gyra, Chick Corea, Yellowjackets, Lee Ritenour, and more.
What came first- vocals or sax? And do you sing through your sax?
I didn’t start singing until recently after writing a song that was too personal to let anyone else sing. That song became my first top 20 Billboard hit, “I Think About Amy.” It was recorded under Woodward Avenue Records.
I’m very melodic in my sax performing and tend to phrase like a singer. I love R&B music and I believe that comes out in my playing.
What’s the biggest difference melodically and thematically between “Driven” and “City Beat”?
“City Beat” was strictly instrumentals and all the songs could be categorized in the same genre. “Driven” was written and recorded after I started singing so the approach was different, and I allowed myself to be free to add pop, R&B, and Adult Contemporary elements to the album.
Favorite tracks of each CD?
On “City Beat” it’s definitely “Mind Your Step” and it’s a lot of fun to perform live with a band too. I really get caught up in it and play straight from emotion, and just blow the doors down.
It’s really hard to choose a favorite on my “Driven” album. It’s a toss-up between “Baby Coffee,” “In America You Can Do It!” and “My Love.” If I had to choose only one it would be “Baby Coffee” since it brought me my first #1 Billboard hit!
What do you like most about the recording and production process?
Hearing my ideas from a simple Garageband demo come to life with the amazing talent I surround myself with. I’m not a proficient pianist so I have to sketch my ideas out and it amazes me how the producers can convert that into something beyond my imagination. Then the creative juices really start to flow and it’s like adding layers to a cake with the last bits and pieces being the ear candy sprinkled on top.
How do you click with the audience when performing live?
I like sharing stories about the songs or people that recorded on them when I’m on stage. I don’t have a rehearsed banter of what I’ll say. I’ve gotten pretty good at reading my audience; depending on the venue I can be flexible in material that I perform. If it’s a bigger stage, full-blown show with a band then it’s a little more scripted as far as a set list and I like to connect with the audience in my performance style.
What instrument have you not had in your band that you would love to perform with and why?
I would love to have a full horn section with trombone, trumpet, and bari sax to perform my arrangements live just like the recordings. That would be so much fun for some jamming as well.
When switching between vocals and sax, how do you mentally prepare for that- or is it organic?
When I first started singing it was awkward at first. I’ve been doing it for a while now and don’t even think about it. There are so many songs that I perform as a vocalist and saxophonist. I used to think about where I would sing and play in the arrangement and now it just comes naturally. If I’m learning a cover song I usually know right away which parts I want to sing and where I will incorporate the sax.
Favorite jazz song – or best hook – ever in history?
I would have to say my favorite jazz tune is “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck with saxophonist Paul Desmond. On the contemporary side I’m partial to the David Sanborn and Bob James recording of “Maputo” written by bassist/producer Marcus Miller.
Talk about your defining moment improvising on “Purple Haze” – what doors did that open? What did that mean to you as affirmation?
The summer in between my sophomore and junior year of high school was when I really started taking the saxophone seriously. I would ear train from the time I got up in the morning ’til who knows when and it didn’t matter to me if I was listening to famous saxophonists or listening to pop radio and copying the melody, I wanted to emulate it. I developed my ear, but I just wasn’t great at improvising just yet.
I don’t know how it happened, but we were practicing Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” in my high school jazz band and I was given the duty of performing a sax solo. Something finally clicked and I was improvising. The whole band including our director stopped and applauded. From that point on I continued to develop this new skill.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m hoping to release a couple of more songs from the “Driven” album to radio this year and I’m working on new music. I also started having melodies gifted to me out of thin air recently, so I start recording those ideas and building the songs.
I want to focus on recording a four- or five-song EP for probably a 2020 release. Hard to believe it’s almost the year 2020.
Highlights coming this year?
I’m making my 2nd trip to the Grammys. I love the networking and camaraderie with people in the same industry as me. With the success of my DRIVEN album, I’m also booking more band shows in 2019.
For more information, visit www.michaeljthomas.net.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Michael J. Thomas.
© Debbie Burke 2019