NEW YORK, NY, OCTOBER 2019 –The tribute album is certainly not a new concept, as artists have raised their voices in celebration of iconic musicians and songwriters in all sorts of creative ways over the years. So conventional wisdom would suggest, there's no new way to approach this concept? Well what if you celebrated a "sound” – more specifically, you celebrated the personal influence and impact of a "vocal range" in a particular genre? If you contemplate the creation of a modern day tribute to the impact of "deep male voices" of the past in "romantic ballad" settings, one name should instantly stand out from the all the rest – The Prince of Sophisticated Soul himself, Will Downing.
Will Downing is releasing “Romantique Part 1”, the first of two truly unique EPs that celebrate the rich-velvet tones that came before him and set the template for the way he would come to wield his own incredible instrument for decades to come. Romantique Part 1is a high-production volume of carefully selected classics, done as always with a nod and respect to the original as Downing deftly makes each song his own. This project is deeply personal and heartfelt. Most certainly, Downing found kinship and early inspiration from his baritone brethren, if one can imagine the challenge of being a young aspiring artist without hearing similar voices to your own on the radio. So why this project and this artist? For one, no one can argue that a send-off to the artistry of the likes of Barry White, Lou Rawls, Isaac Hayesor Jon Lucien (to name a few) is not both long overdue and well deserved. However, probably the most important reason for Downing doing such a tribute...he's one of the only artists who could.
Romantique Part 1kicks off in pulsating fashion with Lou Rawls’ certified gold, 1976 breakthrough smash hit You’ll Never Find (Another Love Like Mine). Bandmate and guitarist Randy Bowland leads a stellar production effort recreating and updating the signature Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff Philadelphia International sound and feel while Downing delivers the opening growl through the mesh of the microphone. Showcased here and throughout the project is the masterful keyboard stylings of longtime band Music Director Mike Logan, Sr., who along with percussionist Taku Hiranu and bassist Hubert Eaves, magically layer a lush MFSB-esque groove to step to. Sweet backing vocals from LaJuan Carter-Dent and songstress-wife Audrey Wheeler-Downing are spot-on finishing touches to this former #1 chart-topping classic.
Up next is a clever duet-styled version of the Grammy Award winning Dionne Warwick hit Déjà Vu. Although recorded originally in 1977 by Warwick alone, Will Downing was instead inspired by video of a rare 1990 Warwick tour performance with the song’s author, Isaac Hayes and called upon the incredible talents of Avery Sunshine to re-interpret the special moment these two giants blessed the stage together. A tall order for sure…too tall for most, but not this pair! The signature opening keyboard chords get a thumping boost from bassist Al Turner, percussionist Pablo Batista and drummer Mike Logan, Jr., who set the mood for the sublime vocal blend of Downing and Sunshine. Their voices complement and blend to each other’s perfectly as Downing takes the production helm on this radio-friendly track.
The insertion of one of Downing’s own classics, If She Knew, is a welcomed addition in the middle of this tribute and comes as no surprise that it fits in seamlessly. This more acoustic version, driven by the upright bass of Kenny Davis and punctuated by the saxophone of Mike Ham takes on a more “dream like” quality, befitting the song’s wishful lyrics. In what would normally be considered a “remix” for most artists, this take does not compel a comparison, but instead commands enjoyment as its own entity.
Another tribute to Isaac Hayes comes in the form of the Clifton Davis penned Never Can Say Goodbye, first made famous by the Jackson 5in 1971. Downing’s take picks up from the Hayes recording in the same year, but brilliantly blends a track that conjures memories of both versions. Some vintage keyboard work on the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer by Johnnie “Smurf” Smith gives the track just enough of that throw-back feel and appeal as Downing drives home a modern-day vamp.
Will Downing closes Romantique Part 1with an absolute jewel and a peek at the manner of artist he may have been had he been born in an earlier time and recording era. An absolutely transformative version of the John Coltrane standard My One an Only Love channels Downing’s inner Johnny Hartman, making full use of his vocal gifts and placing the listener in a smoky café dancing cheek-to-cheek. Davis’ upright bass tones return, anchored by Logan’s piano, Giveton Gelin on trumpet and some lush string work orchestrated by Matt Jones. The shear courage and ultimate triumph of this track cements the fact that Will Downing’s sound absolutely defies the boundaries of time and genres. True greatness shines whenever and however you present it.
Romantique Part 1delivers not only on the challenge of paying tribute to legends, but is a musical marvel that captures the spirit of a recording era rife with studio orchestras and house bands that created a depth of sound lost in the beat driven production approach of much of today’s music. The forthcoming Part 2promises to do more of the same with both fittingly being planned with a limited run on vinyl! Do yourself a favor: unplug the headphones, unpair the Bluetooth speaker and enjoy this outstanding tribute the way it was meant to be heard – bouncing off the walls from your stereo.