The Prince of Sophisticated Soul is back with a band new album that sees the velvet voiced singer cover songs originally done by the women of soul.
It’s easy to be a bit dismayed when one of your favourite artists releases an album purely of covers. Much of the time even the best-intentioned cover albums tend to be a bit lacklustre; even Luther Vandross’ Songs was not much to write about. But for Will Downing, covering classic soul hits is nothing new. In fact, its pretty much business-as-usual.
With the exception of Luther, no one has been able to match Will Downing in his ability to take a well-loved and frequently played tune, and produce a version that stands up to the original. Indeed, UK fans made his version of the Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack classic ‘Where Is The Love‘ a massive hit for Downing and his duetting partner Mica Paris, and many of us just love his version of John Coltrane’ ‘A Love Supreme‘. On his last album Chocolate Drops released last year, Downing took two classics, Bobby Taylor’s civil rights ballad ‘Does Your Momma Know About Me‘ and Whitney Houston’s ‘Saving All My Love For You‘ and produced incredible versions of both. And now Downing has produced an entire album of covers with Black Pearls, with the songs all originally recorded by female artists with Downing now giving them his trademark sophisticated soul sound.
Thankfully, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Downing has produced (another) really enjoyable album with Black Pearls. The idea to cover songs by his female contemporaries (similar to Thelma Houston’s take on male soul classics with A Woman’s Touch) is novel, and it’s interesting to hear a male vocal on these classic selections even if these arrangements largely stick to the originals.
Downing opens up the album with his version of the Cherrelle tune ‘Everything I Miss At Home’, with Downing in fine voice, supported beautifully by his backing singers. Musically, Downing is firmly in the smooth soul/smooth jazz camp, which is more than fine for us; with a voice like that, Downing can put it to anything he wants for all we care. Fortunately for us though, he has chosen a whole host of tasty classics to cover. One of the highlights of the album is most definitely his version of The Emotions’ hit ‘Don’t Ask My Neighbour‘. Downing is at his best here, backed by a tight groove that updates the arrangement from its 1970s form. Interestingly, and pleasantly surprising, is Downings inclusion of horns and strings on this song and on others throughout the album; Downing usually sticks to the smooth, tight grooves, but the inclusions of more musicians really improves the overall sound.
He may be the Prince of Sophisticated Soul and known primarily as a balladeer, but when he needs to Downing can be as funky as the next man. On Black Pearls he demonstrates this with two rather enjoyable covers of The Crusaders’ ‘Street Life‘ (sang originally with Randy Crawford on lead) and The Jones Girls’ ‘Nights Over Egypt‘. Both selections are well loved the world around, and its bold of Downing to tackle them here. And largely he succeeds. On ‘Street Life’ Downing adds in a very tasty string arrangement that didn’t feature on the original, but makes it less jazzy than the original version overall, despite a blistering sax solo from Najee. His version of ‘Nights Over Eygpt’ is pretty decent as well, helped along by Kirk Whalum on flute, and its clear that this is one of his favourites.
But it is the ballads that Downing really excels on, as he has done throughout his entire career. His versions of ‘Your Smile‘, ‘Get Here‘ and ‘Don’t Let It Go To Your Head‘ are all pleasantly enjoyable and incredibly romantic. After all, romantic ballads are Downing’s bread and butter; we shouldn’t expect anything but excellence from him on such selections.
Black Pearls is yet another enjoyable album from Will Downing. It might not be the most adventurous and daring soul album to be released this year, but its Downing at his most comfortable best. Sure, an album of covers might not be that exciting to everyone, but with a voice like Will Downing’s the material doesn’t need to be that great – he could sing the menu of our favourite Wetherspoons pub and it’d still sound amazing. Once again Will Downing has demonstrated his incredible vocal chops, and he will go down as one of the best soul singers of his generation.