For much of his career, Will Downing has comfortably fit in as the working man’s Luther Vandross. Not given to Vandross’ flair and not possessing his vocal talents, Downing was a solid vocalist who admittedly worked hard at the smoothed out textures that he became synonymous with. Throughout eight recordings Downing found a pleasing and effective middle ground between upscale R&B (high production quality along with quality song writing) and soulful pop-jazz.
Downing was at his peak with early 1990s recordings such as Dream Fulfilled (1991), Love’s the Place to Be (1992) and Moods (1995). By the late 1990s Downing was in a bit of a rut, never quite finding a groove among the blandness of commercial jazz stations and the kiddie driven urban scene. Downing wasn’t helped when Mercury, his label at the time, (he recorded three discs initially for Island) was raided and most of their black acts, including Brian McKnight and Vanessa Williams, were “transferred” to the Motown label, which, like Mercury, was also owned by Polygram (later Vivendi/Universal). Downing’s one Motown disc was the disappointing All the Man You Need (2000) which tried hard to earn Downing a following among the same kind of audiences that listen to Joe and Brian McKnight. With Sensual Journey, Downing’s first disc for the long time pop-jazz label GRP, the crooner is back on solid ground returning to his classic smoothed-out groove.
The project’s lead single “Cool Water”, produced by long-time collaborator Rex Rideout, is familiar terrain for Downing, including the requisite Spanish guitar riff that is all but cliché in the current pop market. Whereas “Cool Water” is intended for “Urban” programmers, “I Can’t Help It” is being serviced to smooth jazz formats. The track is a remake of the Stevie Wonder and Susaye Greene composition, which Michael Jackson recorded on Off the Wall (1979). Downing’s version, which is produced by Marcus Miller, has a bouncy Caribbean feel, courtesy of percussionist Luis Conte. The track also features a solo from the smooth Jazz staple Boney James.
“I Can’t Help It” is one of four remakes including a jazzy version of the Main Ingredient’s “Just Don’t Want to be Lonely”, which is also a likely future smooth jazz single. Downing has often been at his best interpreting previously recorded material. His versions of Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” (Come Together as One, 1989), The Stylistics’ classic “Break Up to Make Up” (Love’s the Place to Be, 1993) and Angela Bofill’s “I Try” and Paul Taylor’s “I Go Crazy” (both from A Dream Fulfilled, 1991) are easily some of Downing’s most accomplished performances.
He doesn’t disappoint on Sensual Journey. Downing is joined by vocalists Vesta (Williams) and Phil Perry and guitarist Lee Ritenour (who also produced the track) on a molasses thick trunk-funk version of Leon Ware’s “If I Ever Lose This Heaven”. The song was originally featured on Quincy Jones’ now classic smooth jazz prototype Body Heat (1974), with vocals from the late Minnie Riperton, Valerie Simpson, and Ware, who also produced and wrote much of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You (1976). Downing’s vocals are simply brilliant on his rendition of the late Ephraim Lewis’ obscure gem “Drowning in Your Eyes”. The track is one of the clear highlights on Sensual Journey.
Downing is also one of the strongest balladeers working in contemporary black pop. The Downing original “Maybe”, written with Rideout and Kowan Paul, is a dreamy ode to the classic “personal health day”. The song’s sparse structure allows the singer to wrap his voice around phrases in a way that very few of Downing’s contemporaries can. Flutist John Beasley is behind the boards for the samba-soul of “Bolero Nova”, which is a breezy companion ballad to the aforementioned “Maybe”.
Other highlights on Sensual Journey include “Don’t Talk to Me Like That” which was co-written by Brenda Russell (“If Only for One Night” and “Get Here”) and Vinx (with Marc Cawley). A former percussionist with Sting, Vinx (often mistaken with Bobby McFerrin) recorded a string of breathtaking (and obscure) recordings in the early 1990s including the brilliant Rooms In My Fatha’s House (1991). Vinx drops a exquisite scat solo in the middle of “Don’t Talk to Me Like That”. On “Brooklyn Breeze” Downing is joined by long-time homie and fellow Brooklyn-ite Kashif, a veteran of the industry who had several successful recordings in the 1980s. The song is a thumping tribute to the “planet” of Brooklyn.