Pop Music : Downing Lacks Range, Emotion at the Strand

R&B;/jazz crooner Will Downing is a clearly a student of Luther Vandross, the master in the field these days. Based on his performance Friday night at the Strand in Redondo Beach, the master is in no danger of having to surrender his crown.

Borrowing Vandross' seductive and fluttery inflections, Downing--who appears at the Roxy tonight, sang dreamy ballads in a sleek baritone that doesn't have much range. Rather than straight R&B;, Downing's band provided accompaniment that leaned heavily toward jazz. It's a great idea--a jazz-oriented Vandross. But it was poorly executed.

Lack of range isn't Downing's only problem. He's one of those singers who pays so much attention to technique that he doesn't invest his songs with enough genuine emotion. But judging from the squeals from some women in the sold-out club, many thought he was right on target.

Downing's jazzy style often worked against him. Singing around the melody can be effective, but he frequently overdid it, squashing the melody with note-bending and stretching that sometimes seemed gratuitous and out-of-control. A more straight melodic approach would have made some of his songs more appealing. Things didn't get any better when Downing strayed from the ballads. The few up-tempo tunes he sang were lumbering and clumsy.

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