Ruben James on touring with Sam Smith

Publish date:

Twenty-one-year-old keyboardist Reuben James has been shaking up the musical world both with U.K. retro-soul phenom Sam Smith and with his own acclaimed groups. He’s our “Talent Scout” artist to watch this month. Keep up with him at

HOMETOWN:Birmingham, U.K.

MUSICAL TRAINING:Two years at Trinity College of Music.

FIRST GIGS:Ruby Turner, Yasmin, Abram Wilson 4tet. 

MUSICAL INFLUENCES:Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Errol Garner, D’angelo, All Lovers Rock, Ahmad Jamal, Miles Davis, and more.

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW:Gretchen Parlato ‘s The Lost and Found; Grant Green with Sonny Clarke, The Complete Quartets; Raphael Saadiq, Instant Vintage; Nat “King” Cole, After Midnight; Wynton Marsalis, Black Codes (From the Underground).

INSTRUMENTS PLAYED: Piano and various stage keyboards (see below).

MY BIG BREAK: Playing with Ruby Turner. This was a learning curve, for me to play for the biggest voice of soul music in the U.K. Also, playing with a group called The Funk on Me, supporting B.B. King in Europe when I was 16. I then started touring on the jazz scene with the late, great Abram Wilson, the Clark Tracey Quintet, Jay Phelps, and Jean Toussaint, and regularly played the late show at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. Later, I started playing for Sam Smith and the project has really blown up. It should be a very busy year. We just played on Saturday Night Live in America.

LATEST ALBUM: Playing on Sam Smith’s debut record In the Lonely Hour, released in May of this year.

FAVORITE KEYBOARD GEAR: I’ve been using the Nord Stage 2 and Electro 4D around Europe and the U.S. for the Sam Smith tour. I’m switching to a full Korg setup for the rest of the year.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’ll be playing the Love Supreme Jazz Festival in the U.K. with my trio, then off on a European tour with Sam Smith. I’m also currently doing a lot of songwriting and collaboration, trying to work on my own material. 

ADVICE: Never get comfortable or lazy—those are the easiest things to do. Play as many gigs as possible with as many people as possible, and “woodshed” whenever you get the chance, as finding the time gets harder when you’re on the road. Learn to play all your tunes in all 12 keys! Transcribe from the most prolific players of all time that have changed your instrument, like Errol Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Herbie Hancock. Only practice things that you can’t do—there’s no need to feed the ego. Be humble and put the time in at the piano or you will get found out! There are no limits.