Reuben James – Slow Down EP
(Rufio Records RUFIO005LP – Review by Mark McKergow)
Reuben James is probably best known for his work with singer Sam Smith, appearing on 2017’s The Thrill Of It All, a multi-million selling album (and co-writing two tracks), and shows at the Grammys and the Oscars. He now gets to make music with all kinds of talented people including Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt and Herbie Hancock.
But before that he made his mark in UK jazz circles as a pianist and keyboard wizard with a fine jazz technique and feel. I first came across him a decade ago holding down the piano stool against all-comers at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival jam sessions and moving on to small-scale shows at the Festival, enjoyed by Ravi Coltrane amongst others.
All along, Reuben James has been keen to span genres. He is now in a position to make his own music, and to invite some top-end friends and guests to help him. This six track EP shows him as a vocalist as well as composer, launching into a mellow and chilled style encompassing soul and hip-hop as well as some very full jazz harmonic constructions. James’ keyboards are central to the tunes, with plenty of rippling chords and flowing suspensions always moving along.
The opening My Line, also released as a single, sees James leading the track in a kind of relaxed rap-in-tune, very listenable with a catchy hook, assisted by London Community Gospel Choir lead vocalist Vula. As the track progresses he is joined by East London rapper Jay Prince and R&B innovator Col3trane, with fellow Birmingham jazz star Soweto Kinch emerging with saxophone fills. It’s a heady mix and offers a lot of music in just over four minutes. James’ song-writing really sets him apart from lesser mortals with variety of tone and feel, never just letting the backing click along but flexing and adapting it as he goes.
The groove goes on – All The Things and So Cool see James’ intimate vocals again carrying us forward. Run Away is very easygoing indeed – the R&B equivalent of a slow ballad, surely. Kevin Garrett, himself Grammy-nominated for his work with Beyoncé, joins in on guest vocals which again adds to the rich textures of the music. Drummer-of-the-decade Chris Dave joins guitarist Tom Ford on the all-too-brief Peaches & Whiskey (American rather than Irish, I fancy). The title track Slow Down is the longest track, though none of the music here outstays its welcome at all. The cool jam vibe sloooows down again with an actual piano solo from James and another, more general space for Soweto Kinch to blow in on alto sax.
This is a finely-honed and beautifully produced collection of work from Reuben James, replete with interesting instrumentation, big beats, alluring atmosphere, special guests and hooks to hang your life on. Is it ‘jazz’? No. Is it a clue to what some form of jazz may be becoming? Absolutely. It’s out there now and more than repays repeated listening. He has come a long way in a short time, and for sure isn’t done yet. Watch this space and catch him if you possibly can.
Categories: CD review