Take a moment and imagine the sound of heaven. Heaven can be described as angelic, glorious, and sublime. If one could capture heaven—the celestial—on earth through a particular human voice, whose voice would exemplify it? Arguably, many vocalists could capture paradise depending on who is asked, but few possess a set of pipes as effortless and smooth as R&B veteran Will Downing. Perfection may be impossible, but Will Downing comes close to achieving it with his silky cadences. Thankfully, he uses his nuanced instrument consistently and alluringly on the covers album Black Pearls.
Covers projects have a tendency to be undercooked or blasé, but Downing ensures that Black Pearls is engaging from start to finish. He opens with “Everything I Miss at Home”, originally performed by Cherrelle. While “Everything” doesn’t “rock the boat” per se, the record successfully blends the sensibilities of smooth jazz and adult contemporary R&B. Crafting grown folks R&B through and through, Downing excels in this lane—he’s a “boss”. The production is tidy: every instrument and respective riffs feel as if it’s locked into the proper place.
The R&B musician’s gifts continue to prosper on “Don’t Ask My Neighbors”. As always, his vocals feel as if they are “floating on air”. Vocally, there are clear parallels to the golden pipes of the late, great Luther Vandross. Downing doesn’t do it without help, though; he receives an excellent assist from superb background vocalists who clearly amplify the energy. The flex-fest carries on strong on Angela Winbush classic, “Your Smile”. Unsurprisingly, Downing nails it without a hitch.
Tackling a gargantuan hit is arduous, and Downing’s interpretation of “Get Here” contrasts the definitive Oleta Adams cover of the Brenda Russell’s classic, which is both a blessing and a quasi-curse. He has “big shoes to fill”, and while he meets expectations, he doesn’t quite exceed them. Prudently, he exchanges balladry for a spryer tempo on the funky “Street Life”. Amazingly, considering how tuned-in Downing is, he never forces anything vocally, instead singing as poised and easily as ever. Respectable performances are ongoing with a romantic take on “Everlasting Love” (Rufus & Chaka Khan) and 80s gem “Black Butterfly” (Deniece Williams).
“Nights Over Egypt” distinguishes itself easily. In addition to Downing’s own performance, Kirk Whalum lifts the track with his fantastic flute playing. Add in a killer groove and signature Egyptian cues, and “Nights” is “in-the-pocket”. It doesn’t supplant the crowning achievement, penultimate number “Meet Me On the Moon”. Ambitious and demanding at seven minutes in duration, the ballad is worth every last second. Downing outdoes himself on the Phyllis Hyman classic, making it a clear centerpiece. Capping off Black Pearls is the mid-tempo “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head”, a prudent closer.
All in all, Will Downing delivers a sound, soulful LP with Black Pearls. Vocally, he sounds as remarkable as ever; his instrument hasn’t diminished over his lengthy music career. Black Pearls, like many Downing albums of late, doesn’t “reinvent the wheel”, but it showcases Downing maintaining the utmost consistency. While bold, innovative spirit isn’t necessarily the M.O., Downing remains a highly respectable class act.