Album reviews

Reuben James – ‘Tunnel Vision Mixtape’

Reuben James – Tunnel Vision Mixtape

(Digital EP – review by Mark McKergow)

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This much-anticipated release from Birmingham-born keyboardist, vocalist and producer Reuben James is a treat, filled with warm vibes and top instrumental talent exploring a jazzy nu-soul R&B style with skill and panache.

Reuben James came to prominence in his work with chart-topping singer Sam Smith, joining the arena tours, Grammy awards and international acclaim of the pop world while quietly nurturing his jazz chops. He is interested in a wide range of music and has made a particularly bold move in being ready and willing to collaborate with other musicians ranging from global superstars like Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock and Stormzy to jazz drummer Chris Dave, rapper Jay Prince, and fellow Midlands alumni Tom Ford and Soweto Kinch.

It’s at least a year since James was talking about this work, and he has rightly held off until summer and barbecues are once again an option.  He calls this set a ‘mixtape’, a nice informal way to present a seamless well-mixed hour-long collection of work with many co-performers, some new material alongside some choice previous releases.  The opening Vegan Butter sees American saxophonist Tivon Pennicott adding his smooth colour to a bass-filtered groove, which swoops into Closer, James’ 2021 single with Sophie Faith’s gorgeous vocals interspersing James’ own laid-back voice and Jay Prince’s rap. It’s quite a seven minute journey, which moves into the swaying U Got Me with South Londoner Jaz Karis providing the chorus vocals.

The emphasis switches to softly strummed acoustic guitar on Searching with Vula Malinga joining Jay Prince and multi-instrumentalist Conor Albert. The beat gets a notch firmer for Ruby Smiles, a James keyboard solo leading into some alto sax from Soweto Kinch.  BBQ Energy, another James song from a year or two ago, is brought in with Adam Flowers sharing vocals and in-demand trumpeter Keyon Harrold adding brassy flair into the mix.  

Flute master Gareth Lockrane is featured on the new single What U Need with Chicago rapper Ric Wilson. All I Wanna Do is totally chilled, strings, piano and acres of space, while Wings Of A Butterfly sees Vula return along with Vanessa Butler on vocals. The title track Tunnel Vision sees Frida Touray and Daley sharing vocals with James, maintaining the cool yet rich pulse of the whole set with Tom Misch’s guitar coasting along to the close. 

There is so much to enjoy in this hour-long drifting dream of an album – many performers, great arrangements and production, and Reuben James at the heart of it with his vocal style and sensitivity for a hook.  No, it’s not jazz but… I am wondering whether Reuben James is becoming a kind of Steely Dan for the R&B generation, producing engaging and enjoyable material which is both accessible to a wide audience and yet packs a musical punch that belies its clear charms.   

As far as I can see, it is impossible to buy this set as a physical product. It’s streaming on all the usual services and is on Soundcloud too. And there are videos to watch. U Got Me and Closer are available on a double A-side vinyl. Check it out, stick it on at your own chilling BBQ and enjoy. And it is about to be performed live – Reuben is headlining Ronnie Scott’s on 12-13 May 2022.

LINKS: Tunnel Vision can be streamed on Soundcloud

Reuben James at Ronnie Scott’s, 12-13 May 2022

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