[4 December 2007]
Will Downing is one of the last remaining links to R&B’s “quiet storm” era, and as such, is almost a relic. They don’t make ’em like him anymore. While most of today’s soul stars are flirting heavily with hip-hop, imitating Michael Jackson, or veering towards the more “arty” neo-soul sound, Downing’s mellow vocals and easygoing vibe call to mind artists like Luther Vandross, Anita Baker and Whitney Houston. While Downing would have fallen into the gap of sound alike artists during that time period, he stands out as unique these days, especially with Vandross deceased, Baker semi-retired and Whitney… well, we know about Whitney.
Anyhow, Downing has built up a dedicated following over the course of the past two decades, and while his audience (folks who listen to “smooth jazz” or “urban adult contemporary” radio) may be smaller than the average teen idol’s, it’s constant and unwavering, as evidenced by the fact that Downing’s 13th album, After Tonight, became his first to hit #1 on Billboard’s R&B Album chart.
Much like Vandross, Downing flirts with current musical trends but knows enough to not let them dictate his signature sound. He knows enough to not over-sell a song. You’ll never hear him scream or shout, but that doesn’t mean he can’t emotionally invest himself into a song. The man is the definition of smooth, both for the way he can jump from a sensual baritone to an airy falsetto and for the easygoing nature of his songs. This (and any of Will’s albums, quite frankly) can be used as either the soundtrack to a hot ‘n’ heavy Saturday night between the sheets or the following Sunday morning, as you sip lemonade out on your front porch.
While Downing has cultivated one of the stronger catalogs in the realm of current R&B, After Tonight is one of his stronger efforts and my favorite since 2002’s excellent Sensual Journey. Downing croons and swoons his way through a gorgeous selection of songs with guest shots from some of contemporary jazz and soul’s finest musicians, including saxophonist Kirk Whalum and legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers. And although you wouldn’t be able to tell it from listening to the grooves, Will recorded the album during an especially trying period for him.
As Downing began work on this album, he was diagnosed with a rare disease called polymyositis, which causes inflammation of the muscles. Sufferers of this disease often struggle with muscle weakness, and Downing recorded most of this album from either a wheelchair or a hospital bed. After Tonight suffers none from the singer’s ailment, and Downing doesn’t let his affliction alter any of his lyrics, with the exception of a song called “God Is So Amazing” that would have fit neatly on any other album recorded during his career.
From the opening track, After Tonight sucks you in. “Will’s Groove” combines sumptuous vocal arrangements with a funky rhythm and some of the nastiest wah-wah guitar on a soul record in recent memory. It calls to mind the best of Marvin Gaye’s work with Leon Ware, circa “I Want You”. “After Tonight” (presented here in two versions) marries a spring-like groove to some serious romantic bravado. All those folks who might be wondering where “grown & sexy” went with the passing of Vandross and Gerald LeVert need look no further after hearing this song.
Always known as a master interpreter-he’s covered everything from The Average White Band and Michael Jackson to Paul Davis’s lite-radio standard “I Go Crazy”, Downing only tackles one non-original song on this album, and it’s a winner. His take on Bill Withers’ melancholy “You Just Can’t Smile It Away” is stunning. He even takes it to the clubs (well, if clubs still played this kind of music) with “Lovers’ Melody”. Spiced with the vibes playing of Roy Ayers, this cut captures the spirit that sparked disco hits like Ayers’ own “Running Away” back in the day.
Those of you who need a little extra spice for any upcoming romantic interludes would be hard-pressed to find better accompaniment among recent releases than Will Downing’s After Tonight. Carrying the torch for the mature, smooth R&B singer, Downing’s latest effort is one of the better releases of 2007 in any subgenre of soul music.