An Interview with Will Downing
An Interview with
By Mark Ruffin
Will Downing’s mother had just learned she was pregnant with him in Brooklyn on March 7, 1963 when the late Chicago vocalist Johnny Hartman and legendary saxophonist John Coltrane stepped into a New Jersey studio to produce one of the classic and most romantic albums in jazz history.
Today, it is Hartman’s name that first rolls off the deep-baritone tongue of Downing’s when asked to name his influences. In fact, it is the classic “Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane” album that inspired the singer’s new album with sax man Gerald Albright. It titled “Pleasures Of The Night” and it just recently knocked Kenny G off a long run at number one on Billboard’s contemporary jazz charts.
“This album is really a tribute to those who laid it down before us,” Downing said while on a recent promotional tour. “It’s also a tribute to the love of this kind of music that Gerald and I both share. I hope that this record solidifies us both as being very versatile and forces to be reckoned with in any style.
“I’m not holding up the flag for the tradition or that style of music,” continued the vocalist who also lists Nat Cole, Donny Hathaway, Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder as influences. “I’m doing what pleases me artistically. I’m doing what I do because I like doing it and because I can.”
Downing’s self-assuredness stems partially from the fact that no matter where the huge Polygram music conglomerate plugs him in, he delivers. His new record is on Verve, his last record was on Mercury, his next one will be on Motown, while his first three were on Island. They’re all Polygram subsidiaries.
“Among other things, Gerald and I had been talking about forming a company,” Downing said. “Like all musicians we would see each other and say ‘hey we got to get together and work.’ He played on my record and vice versa and our personalities blended.”
Downing, who comes off as smart, funny and confident, but not cocky, doesn’t remember how he and Albright met, but both insists that the initial meeting must’ve been at the beginning of this decade. Since that time, they not only recorded together, but have toured extensively in partnership. To further their union, Downing had to use his corporate clout.
“I went upstairs and talked to the president of my company and told him I wanted to make a duet record with Gerald Albright slightly reminiscent of the Hartman/Coltrane record. They were ecstatic and made all the necessary calls to Gerald’s record label and took care of all the business and here we are.”
Part of the deal states that if there is a sequel, it will be on Atlantic, the label Albright records for.
Downing and Albright have similar backgrounds, while growing up on different coasts. Both went to arts-related high schools and segued into busy working studio musicians. Both benefited heavily from the contemporary jazz radio format in the late 80’s that spawned the much more open format of urban adult radio in the 90’s.. And Downing and Albright have racked up impressive record sales while building their careers on successfully choosing the right songs to cover.
Except for the title track and an original instrumental, all of the songs on “Pleasures Of The Night” are over 20 years old. They include old chestnuts that Hartman had a chance to cover in his lifetime life like “The Nearness Of You” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” to modern pop standards like “Stop Look & Listen” and Stevie Wonder’s “Girl Blue,”
The difference in their careers is that Downing’s first success came in England. His first two records each initially sold about 35,000 copies in the U.S., while clearing half a million in Europe. The other difference is the overwhelmingly female audience that Downing attracts.
“I hear them screaming when I do shows,” Downing said with a deep rattling laugh, “and I get letters.
“A lot of times women are more prone to listen to what you’re saying, more so than the bass player, or Gerald smoking on sax like the guys do,” he continued trying to explain the phenomenon. “Women kind of think ‘hey he’s talking about things that are pertinent to my life and things that I can relate to.”
But, what about the deep baritone voice and those timeless tunes?
“Oh it’s that too. It’s a culmination of things,” he said in exasperation. “Look, we’ll never understand women. I’m just going on what I heard.”
A generation ago, it was Johnny Hartman & John Coltrane that many couples put on for a bit of aural foreplay. Downing is hoping to capture that same romantic feeling and facilitate more love with “Pleasures Of The Night.”
“Glad I can help,” Downing concluded laughing.