Few male singers over the last quarter centuryhave maintained the consistency of Will Downing. The charming stylist has built a devoted legion of followers since 1988 with a steady stream of conceptual albums that blend the best of smooth soul with light jazz nuances. From a vocal standpoint, the Brooklyn native initially established a deep, suave baritone technique that breathed new life into classics ranging from Deniece Williams' "Free" to Paul Davis' "I Go Crazy." Over the past ten years, he's expanded on that panache with breezy tenor interpretations and material exploring slightly funkier and younger genre leanings.
Now a fully independent artist, Downing marks the occasion of 25 years as a solo artist with Silver, a 12-track collection comprised of four new songs, seven from 2012's Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow EP trilogy, and a live rehearsal medley of three of his best-loved remakes. Although it would have been ideal to have a full disc of new material—and perhaps a second disc of career highlights -- the overall selection on Silver is indicative of what Downing does best. It's not an easy plight for artists working on their own budgets these days; and Silver manages to capture versatility and sophistication in an age where recycled, thoughtless hooks are all too often the rage.
The set opens with the midtempo swag of "Stuff That I Like," a memorable tune filled with culinary metaphors set to a groove that brings to mind R. Kelly's "Step in the Name of Love." Since being diagnosed with the muscular disorder Polymyositis in 2007, Downing has steadily regained the vocal strength that was somewhat absent on that year's After Tonight. In solid form, he croons "My appetite's crazy/Just a little nibble turns me on" during the first verse of "Stuff." While some of the kitchen analogies have been heard before, he takes the concept full-scale with his intention to "lap it up" and "munch on you everyday," as the beat glides gently with supple guitar plucks and soft background vocals.
The best of the new batch of songs comes in the form of the reggae-inspired swayer, "What Would You Do," and the feel-good ballad, "You Were Meant Just for Me," a duet with Avery Sunshine. The straightforward message of making the most out of life in "What Would You Do" is delivered with marked melodic purity, while the filling chords and soulfully satisfying arrangement of "You Were Meant Just for Me" is the perfect complement to the chemistry of Downing and Sunshine. Downing builds gradually as he relates the familiar love quandary, "It's complicated since we're both dating/My head's confused but my heart wants you," while Sunshine delivers with lush tones and lovely diction, "It's getting harder to spin it/And my man, he can sense it." The only letdown here is that, before the tune can reach its apex, the fadeout comes in abruptly during a vocal breakdown hinting at a third verse.
Downing's selections from the Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow EP trilogy mesh well with the new repertoire. Many of the choices are songwriting collaborations with another remarkable stylist, Gary Taylor. Of these, "The Blessing" immediately stands out as classic. With sentimental clarity, Downing instills simple vocal nuances that give unmistakable conviction to the words, "Together forever is more than a passing thought/Embracing the comfort of sharing a love that never gets lost." With ample breathing room in the downtempo arrangement, he brings out a subtle bit of "church" as he narrates, "You're how it feels to be touched and caressed by God's hands." "Sexy" will also likely become a favorite of Downing devotees, as the serene track makes good use of that distinctive baritone range which listeners haven't been treated to quite as much over the last few years. The tender dynamics of his vocals float effortlessly over the chilled-out groove, making for a staple that combines the urban-contemporary finesse of his All The Man You Need phase with the gentle breeze of 2002's Sensual Journey.
Rounding out Silver, the live rehearsal medley of "I Go Crazy," "I Try," and "Wishing on a Star" returns Downing to the nouveau classic mode that played an important part of his rise to fame during the late 1980s and early '90s. Originally recorded on his Come Together as One and A Dream Fulfilled LPs, the thoughtful covers are given new interpretation in a ten-minute piece that segues the songs together seamlessly. While there are a few melodic changes in "I Go Crazy" that will leave fans of his '91 version wanting just a little bit more, the overall performance is soulful and relaxed.
Taken as a whole, Silver is a commendable representation of Will Downing's talents as a vocalist, writer, and producer. There are a few moments when the realities of modern-day recording budgets slightly hinder the mood: Back in the pre-Internet "glory days" of the late 1980s and early '90s, when full or partial rhythm sections were still mainstays of R&B recording sessions, there was an attention given to detail in musicality that has often gotten lost in post-Y2K, programming-centered productions. In the case of Silver, this translates occasionally to Downing's rich delivery being backed by a spare synthesized track which makes one yearn just a tad for the fullness of Invitation Only or Emotions. More importantly, though, Will Downing proves with Silver why he is a continually relevant force in both the R&B and contemporary jazz worlds: delivering songs that resonate with the heart, sung with assured smoothness and command. Highly Recommended.
by Justin Kantor