Classique, the title of Will Downing’s new release, suggests yet another collection of “classic” soul and R&B recordings. And Downing does include several remarkable remakes, but what the recording’s title really asserts is that Downing himself is in classic form throughout the album. With more than 21 years in the business, Downing is one of the most recognizable brands in R&B and smooth jazz, and Classique finds him only adding to his considerable allure.
But three years ago, critics and fans were writing obituaries for Downing’s career. He was diagnosed in late 2006 with a debilitating muscular disease, and there was much speculation that one of the most distinctive voices of the last two decades would be silenced. The artist recorded much of 2007’s After Tonight in a wheelchair, while still recovering in the hospital. By the summer of 2008, Downing was back on the road. Talking by phone from New York City, he sounded healthy and strong, “I’m feeling pretty good,” he told me. “God’s been good.”
Classique is a collection of mostly original tracks with longtime collaborator Rex Rideout. “We’ve been friends for 16 years,” Downing says of Rideout, whose resume includes recordings with Lalah Hathaway, Mary J. Blige, Angie Stone and Maysa. Rideout has “helped shape me into the artist that you hear,” said Downing, who has worked with the producer since 1993’s Love’s the Place to Be. Rideout contributes to the bouncy “More Time (Tic Toc)” and the lead single, “Something Special,” which was co-written with Downing and fellow singer-songwriter Gary Taylor. Additionally, Downing takes the production reins himself on several tracks, including “Let’s Make It Now” and “I Won’t Stop,” the kind of mid-tempo balladry that Downing has built his career on.
When Downing began his career in the late 1980s, he seemed more interested in taking over the dance floor than becoming a stalwart of “Quiet Storm” radio. His first recording includes dance mixes of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Deniece Williams’ “Free.” It all changed when Downing scored with a breathtaking remake of Rolls Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” from 1989’s Come Together As One.