A tall glass of cool water, when the sun is shining bright, is always a welcome treat, much like the new "Sensual Journey" CD from the tall glass of cool named Will Downing. The vocalist, who has been wowing us for well over a decade, has just released album number nine, and did not forget the kitchen sink, or the star power of producers like Ronnie Foster, Lee Ritenour, Rex Rideout, Ronnie Garrett, and Kashif, among others. The sum of all the names of these superstar producers and musicians add up to one definitive total-Will Downing to the highest power.
"Sensual Journey" picks up where the 1998 CD "Pleasures of the Night," with saxophonist Gerald Albright, left. It is a collection of essentially jazz-centered love songs. Downing pairs with his "Pleasures of the Night" buddy on the current CD with one of the albums standout songs; a soul-stirring tune entitled "Home." The first song released to Urban AC radio was "Cool Water," kicking off Downing’s sensual journey of eleven tracks, with the sensitivity, and sexiness that has become trademark for Downing. The lyrics, spun by Downing’s deeply rich baritone, convincingly assure his object of adulation there’s no need to fear; he’ll be all the man she needs. "Almost like Being in Love," with the accompaniment of guitarist Marc Antoine, is yet another standout track. At the tune’s end you may either wish you were in love or be glad that you are. But that is concisely what Will Downing’s music does to us mere mortals-he makes us reflect on that "state of being" that defies control-he makes us reflect on love.
I had the opportunity to talk with Will Downing just a few days before the release of his new CD. What I found in our conversation was a man who is witty, confident, reflective, and prepared to take on the challenges and successes to come. The journey for Downing is not only sensual, but fired by the passion of continually putting out beautiful music.
Jazz Review: Will, you have a new CD, "Sensual Journey" coming out on May 7th. If you could just share your experiences about waiting for a new release to drop what are your thoughts this time?
Will Downing: I’m always excited about a new CD. I think the waiting part, after your done, is the killer. Because you sit with the music so long, you form your own opinion and you want to know what the public feels about it. That’s more important than anything. But I really feel confident about the things that we’ve recorded on this album. There are some classic songs on here and songs that I know will be a mainstay at my shows. There are things that I’m going to have to sing forever and ever, and I don’t mind. When you record that’s what you want, and I think there are quite a few songs like that on this album.
Jazz Review: I think "Sensual Journey" delivers what it says in the title from beginning to end. What was your number one goal in making this album?
Will Downing: Well in essence it has a lot to do with me personally. Usually I always like to think that I’m doing the best I can to make myself happy. Public persona is always a big factor, as well. I’m just excited about the record. I just think that it’s a really good record. It’s an opportunity to surpass what people consider to be one of my best albums. I did an album called "A Dream Fulfilled" back in ‘92’ or ’93,’ and since then people have always said, "That’s your best album."
Jazz Review: That’s the one with (Angela Bofill’s) "I Try" on it.
Will Downing: With "I try," and "I Go Crazy," and a bunch of other songs. My goal is always to surpass that album (laughing). Every time I do an album I think, "Okay this is going to be the best album. This is going to better than ‘A Dream Fulfilled." So that’s my goal and I think we’ve either done it or come very, very close.
Jazz Review: This is a very good album. I’ve listened to it several times.
Will Downing: Okay, listen to it some more. (laughing)
Jazz Review: Talk about a line-up! You have Gerald Albright, who you work with quite often. On top of Mr. Albright you have Ronnie Foster, Hubert Laws, Wil Kennedy, Boney James, Marc Antoine, who just has one of the most distinctive guitar sounds in contemporary jazz, the incredible Marcus Miller, Vinx, Vesta and I could go on and on. How did you get all of these musicians to sign on to this project?
Will Downing: Well it was easy. They are contemporary and a great deal of them are friends of mine. Every one likes to be associated with quality, and so we trade off. You know Gerald and I have been working together for some years. We had a duet album together called "Pleasures of the Night." And basically on every album we do a trade off. I’ll say, "Hey Man come on and play." Then he’ll say, "Yeah would play on mine?" And we don’t pay each and we both stay poor, but we get to participate on each other’s album.
It’s the same situation with Lee Ritenour. I sung on the "A Twist of Marley" album and he reciprocated and co-produced and produced cuts on this album and I got him to play on it. It’s just the music circle, as far as this music is concerned, is so small. It’s just a natural call. Boney and I talk often and we always talked about doing each other’s album, so I finally made the first call.
Jazz Review: And I imagine you do meet with a lot of artists on the road-sharing bills with each other.
Will Downing: Absolutely! Absolutely! Yes. We always meet and say the same thing. "Oh Man you were good we got to get together and work." We always say it, but I’m the one who follows up on making the call. And it worked out. It worked out on this album.
Jazz Review: Now, I was just talking about the musicians that were playing on the album, but then you have another list of musicians who helped in producing? Tell me what they brought to the project.
Will Downing: Well, I think that when you call in "co-anything" like co-producers, co-writers, whatever; they always bring in a different perspective. This is my ninth album and I think that a lot of times I may fall into a pattern and not realize it. So I think you need another set of ears in there saying, "Hey Will, why don’t’ you try this instead of that." And you have to be open to that in order to keep up with the times and also bring out the fresh music.
Jazz Review: I imagine there is a whole lot of trust that goes into that because it is ultimately going to be your sound.
Will Downing: Well, you’re always going to have your sound, so just because someone new is coming in, it doesn’t mean that it takes over the whole project. It’s kind of like another flavor to the food. I know the people that I work with very well, and I know what they are capable of doing. It’s just a matter of just saying, "I value your opinion. I trust your opinion" so let’s go with it.
Jazz Review: "Sensual Journey" has a very even flow from track to track. It gets you in a mood and keeps you there. I thought the same of your last CD, "All the Man You Need," except it was more R&B tinged, whereas this one is decidedly more in the cool jazz contemporary vain. Would you agree with that?
Will Downing: Absolutely! Absolutely!
Jazz Review: What was the decision for the more jazz centered approach this time?
Will Downing: Well, I think with the Motown record, "All the Man You Need," it was a matter of satisfying quite a few kinds of entities. We thought that we could solidify ourselves in the R&B arena. So I kind of made the record a little more R&B tinged, but at the same time I have my personal needs that have to be satisfied and I threw my flavor on it. It was a good record and I think there are some real gems on it musically. I just think the continuity didn’t flow as well as the "Pleasures of the Night" album prior to it, or this album. The older you get, you really have to plant your feet in one area and make your stand and say, "This is what I want to be known for this is what I want to do," and have an air of consistency. And I think that this album gets back on track. We were on track on "Pleasures of the Night." We went a little off-center for "All the Man You Need," and now we are coming back full steam ahead with the new album.
Jazz Review: But it is all right to go outside and satisfy that need.
Will Downing: Oh absolutely! But you know the sad thing, and I guess lucky for me, is a lot of people don’t get that opportunity to say what they want to say, the way they want to say it.. Some people take chances, and they flop, and may never get another opportunity. So I’ve been very fortunate in that regard because I have been able to take chances, experiment, and come to rely on the plusses and also correct the minuses.
Jazz Review: And I think your audience trusts you not to take them off to any crazy places.
Will Downing: Oh no! It’s always going to be musical. It’s always going to have an air of consistency. We’re not going to go but so far off track. I think that this is going to make the hardcore Will Downing fans really happy.
Jazz Review: Does it bother you sometimes that we have to keep people in certain boxes saying," You’re a jazz artist," to others "You’re an R&B artist" and "You’re a soul artist." Does it ever bother you that it just can’t be music?
Will Downing: It always bothers me that that’s what it is. But that’s just not how the world works. It’s really unfortunate. We segregate the music. "This is adult music. This is hip-hop. This is R&B. This is jazz. This is contemporary jazz." And it is silly. You know, the radio programmers program that way, as well. They kind of put an artist like myself in a very difficult position because my music is too soulful and too heartfelt to be played on the contemporary jazz stations. It’s too musical to be played on the hardcore R&B stations. So it puts me in a very strange position. I’m not old but I’m not young. It’s very difficult to find you’re place out here. So you have to do what you have to do for yourself and for the fans.
Jazz Review: Now it seems like there are so many more acts that are blending types of music. It would seem that it has to change.
Will Downing: Yes! Well, you would hope so, and you just hope that it’s not too late for you in somebody else’s eyes. There are a lot of artists out there with an abundance of talent. I’m talking about artists that were established and have fallen off in someone else’s eyes and they just can’t get back on. It has nothing to do with their ability or inability.
Jazz Review: While I was listening to the "Sensual Journey" CD, I came across a song called "Maybe" where I heard this guy with a baritone voice, who shall remain nameless- who was giving this lady the "mack approach" from way back. Seriously it’s a fun song but you are laying it on thick.
Will Downing: (laughing)Ah that’s one way to look at it. Well you have to remember having phone sex. I don’t know you’re personal life or what your day to day is like. Just imagine when you hooked up with that new person and you were just getting to know one another on the telephone. That’s kind of what the conversation sounds like. You probably don’t want to admit it, but that’s what it sounds like. You’re sitting up there in bed and all you hear is that gravel in his voice.
The premise of the story is very real. It’s not like out of the realm of reality. It’s about a guy who has decided he’s had enough of work and he’s going to take the day off. Now he’s trying to convince his lady-friend to do the same thing. Her question is "what are we going to do?" That’s where it starts, " Maybe we can go to the movies, maybe we can go to the museum, maybe you can come by and we can hang out, maybe we can " You fill in the blank.
Jazz Review: But by the end it does come back to making love.
Will Downing: Hey, it was some ungodly hour of the morning. And it is phone sex (laughing). It was an adult booty call. The joy of being an adult; it was a classy booty call.
Jazz Review: Yes it was. Thank you. Well, the song puts you in the mindset of a lot of the old R&B songs with the smooth rap. Talking about classic songs you remade "I can’t help it" made famous by Michael Jackson, "If I ever lose this heaven" by Quincy Jones, and "Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely for your "Sensual Journey" CD. "You have remade many songs successfully. What is your rule of thumb on classic songs like these?
Will Downing: A lot of songs that I’ve done over the years have been by female artists and I give the male interpretation. That’s one standpoint. Another one is sometimes you want to say something and you don’t know how to say it, and someone has said it better and you have to be a big enough person to admit that. I think a lot of songs that I sing and remake are so well written- and that it is exactly how I felt and the way I want to say it; so I remake it.
Jazz Review: You express it differently.
Will Downing: Song like "I try," men want to sing songs like that and say things like that all the time, but it is so well written that it’s exactly what I want to say. Instead of saying "ditto," I give my interpretation of it.
Jazz Review: This has been a year of great change for everyone. Musically, you have undergone changes with your label. And in the grand scheme of things you are a New Yorker, so the events of September 11th had to have affected you. On top of that as a musician you have to fly all over the world and for a while flying was a nightmare. Talk about how this last year has affected you.
Will Downing: Well, I think that it puts everything into a reality take. Obviously, I have heartfelt emotions for those who were in the building and those who were affected by it. I knew someone who was killed inside the towers. It was a tragedy. We ended up canceling quite a few things. I had a show with Patti Austin in England that was sold out and we canceled those shows. You kind of get on those planes and travel and you really have to keep your wits about you. When I finally did get on a plane, I think I watched everyone who would get on the plane and what they were doing and it just made me very paranoid, and just alert. Every time I saw someone (in the plane) I’d say to myself "the bathroom is in the back why are you walking to the front? Get ‘em!" But the world has become kind of like that. It’s a very strange time right now.
Jazz Review: Looking back on your career. What makes you proudest?
Will Downing: That’s a tough question. I don’t know if I can pick one (pausing). Every time I hear my record for the first time on the radio. I’m ecstatic. To me, that’s the best feeling and the best moment to have.
Jazz Review: Even now, after all these years?
Will Downing: Oh yeah! I hadn’t heard this record up until two days ago. People around the country were calling and saying, " Ah man I just heard your record." And I’m saying "I haven’t heard it yet. I haven’t heard it yet." Two days ago I just heard it on the local station here. I heard the beginning of it and I was downstairs with my daughter and I told her "I got to go upstairs for a minute." I went upstairs, went to my room, and closed the door. I’m sitting there looking at the radio like it’s a TV. I’m sitting up there welling up inside. It’s a fantastic feeling. Between that feeling and going on stage and just portraying it for the very first time and seeing the reaction from the audience. That’s also a great feeling. So I can’t say that there’s any one feeling that’s like "Yeah!" I get excited all the time about little things.
Jazz Review: What does Will Downing want to do, from performing to recording, to going somewhere that you’ve never played-that you haven’t done yet?
Will Downing: Well you know out of all these years I’ve been recording, I still don’t have a gold record. And it’s a materialistic thing to ask for but I want one. I leave an open space on my wall every year that I release an album and I have an empty wall. I mean I have gold records from other artist that I’ve recorded with over the years and that’s cool but that’s what I really want.
Jazz Review: Hypothetically, if you could talk to any one performer past or present and get advice from them who would it be? And why?
Will Downing: Donny Hathaway. I don’t know if he’s an influence on my vocal style but I’m really touched by the things he’s done musically and vocally. I would like to just get to understand him and how he got to where he was and understand who he was. There was so much emotion in his music that I just want to feel it and get it from the horse’s mouth.
Jazz Review: With this new album and summer approaching, you’ve got to be hitting the road. Where are you performing?
Will Downing: I haven’t really seen a schedule yet. I know there’s about two or three weeks of work with Patti Austin, Gerald Albright, and me this summer. Then I’ll be doing a lot of spot dates.
Jazz Review: Sounds good. I just want to thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk to us.
Will Downing: Thank you. It was a pleasure, and hopefully I’ll see you this summer!
For more info about Will Downing&&&s tour schedule or to listen to the "Sensual Journey" CD log on to his website.