Perhaps no contemporary R&B artist has performed under as much obscurity. With the release of his seventh solo recording (his eighth recording Pleasures of the Night was a collaboration with saxophonist Gerald Albright), Will Downing remains an unknown to general R&B and pop audiences. This relative obscurity is part of the price that Downing has paid for his versatility. Like contemporaries Dianne Reeves and Rachelle Ferrell, whose long-awaited follow-up to her self-titled R&B debut and straight-ahead jazz release, First Instrument, will be due out in September, Downing has been comfortable in both the R&B and smooth jazz worlds. With a casual vocal style which recalls the late and tragically obscured Walter Jackson as well as Caribbean crooner Jon Lucien, Downing is a “working-class” alternative to the more bourgeois flourishes of Luther Vandross.
While Downing’s first two releases Will Downing and Come Together as One, included minor hits like his vocal version of “A Love Supreme” and definitive eight-minute plus remake of the Rose Royce classic “Wishing on a Star,” Downing’s breakthrough recording was A Dream Fulfilled, released in the spring of 1991. With major production by jazz pianist and arranger Onaje Allan Gumbs, A Dream Fulfilled familiarized Downing to smooth jazz audiences with stunning versions of Angela Bofil’s “I Try,” Paul Young’s “I Go Crazy,” War’s “The World is a Ghetto,” and the standard “For All We Know.” Downing’s further capitalized on the momentum generated by A Dream Fulfilled with his best recording Love’s the Place to Be (1993). Largely produced by Rex Rideout and veteran keyboardist and vibraphonist Ronnie Foster, the recording featured a duet with Rachelle Ferrell (“Nothing has Ever Felt Like This”), a rousing interpretation of Thom Bell’s “Break Up to Make Up” and Ronnie Foster’s “smoky cool” title track. Downing’s two subsequent recordings, Moods (1995) and Invitation Only (1997), while featuring solid efforts like Downing’s own “Sorry I,” the contemporary standard “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and “If She Knew,” found Downing in an artistic holding pattern. Downing’s move to Motown, initiated by the collapse of his label’s (Mercury) black music division, which jettisoned Downing and fellow label mates Brian McKnight and Vanessa Williams to Motown under the current leadership of former maverick Kedar Massenberg, did not bode well for the rejuvenation of the kind of creative energies that marked A Dream Fulfilled and Love’s the Place to Be.
All the Man You Need finds Downing in familiar places almost to the extent of being a caricature of himself. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Where as label-mate Brian McKnight personifies somnolence, Downing is often just too “smooth” for his own good. The lead single “When You Need Me” features the enigmatic chanteuse Chante Moore and is the perfect fit for the type of “quiet storm” formats where Downing is likely to attract new audiences. Unfortunately, Downing’s mature vocals are likely to take a back seat to the greasy, sexy, boy-man dribble of the Jagged Edges and Nexts of the world. “Thinkin’ About You,” attempts to capitalize on the sound that McKnight has parlayed into a few top ten pop recordings, but without McKnight’s track record, Downing is unlikely to make any headway to the crossover audiences that to his credit he has never explicitly sought. The tracks “Only a Moment Away” and “Everytime It Rains” are trademark Downing songs — smooth vocals, lush production, and romantic themes — which not surprisingly are also penned by him. The real standouts on All the Man That I Need include the D’Angelo-esque “Tired Melody” which is one of three tracks produced by Soulquarian James Poyser (Common’s Like Water for Chocolate). The track also features drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Poyser also produced the recordings best track “Real Soon” which should likely be the next single.
The biggest surprise on the recording is Downing’s remake, also produced by Poyser, of the Bill Withers standard “Grandma’s Hands.” Withers, the vastly underrated singer song-writer, is best known for his collaboration with Grover Washington on “Just the Two of Us,” though his best known composition “Lean on Me” was popularized by Club Nouveau more that 10 years after Withers first recorded the track himself. Withers has received new attention largely courtesy of Teddy Riley’s sly tribute to his music via Riley’s sampling of “Grandma’s Hand” on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” While Downing’s remake is not likely to make the waves that “No Diggity” did, it is refreshing to see that Downing is still willing to take some risk with his music. All the Man that I Need is not likely to change opinions of Downing’s work, one way or the other, but when so many veteran artists seek gimmicks to reach new audiences, Downing seems secure to simply do what he does best…and there is nothing wrong with that.