James Tillman - Shangri La EP (2014)

James Tillman
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It is quite simply the silkiest EP you’ll hear this year. Lushly romantic and sinuously sung, this sonorous escape from your every day makes a warm Calgon bath seem like languishing in weak dishwater. Live musicianship and organic jam session atmospherics lend this project an honesty and authenticity that generally a younger generation gets accused of lacking. Well, James Tillman shuts that noise down in four songs that all end much too soon and leaves one thirsty for more. Only KING has done a better job at whetting the appetite so quickly.  The name isn’t mere propaganda, it actually says it all: for James Tillman’s debut project is Shangri La.

It is quite simply the silkiest EP you’ll hear this year. Lushly romantic and sinuously sung, this sonorous escape from your every day makes a warm Calgon bath seem like languishing in weak dishwater. Live musicianship and organic jam session atmospherics lend this project an honesty and authenticity that generally a younger generation gets accused of lacking. Well, James Tillman shuts that noise down in four songs that all end much too soon and leaves one thirsty for more. Only KING has done a better job at whetting the appetite so quickly.  The name isn’t mere propaganda, it actually says it all: for James Tillman’s debut project is Shangri La.

Wherever did this resonant, rich tenor come from? A Washington, DC native, Tillman is more than a singer/songwriter on the rise; he’s a long-time musician, having conquered the clarinet at age 16. A New School jazz student, following such notables as Bilal, José James, and Jesse Boykins III, the newcomer strikes an unassuming, bespectacled figure, but has already graced such New York stages as B.B. King’s and Bowery Electric and been featured by Essence and Okayplayer as someone to watch. Influenced by everyone from Marvin Gaye and Nat King Cole to Caetano Veloso, Tillman’s technique is apparent from the second he opens his mouth, with a gift for caressing high-pitched notes that are still as decidedly male as they are perfectly pitched, as demonstrated during the aria notes of “Loved.”

Over Tillman’s four songs, two have already been rightly placed and well advertised. The first, the project’s sole mid-tempo groove, “Shangri-La,” got featured on BamaLoveSoul’s On Deck 2. With a classic R&B drum, guitar, and bass driven rhythm and aerial harmonies, the title track metaphorically represents the legendary land with each soaring chorus while Tillman shows off both a strong natural and a sinewy falsetto. The second, the music blogs-pushed single, “And Then,” originally was more like “Shangri-La” in its ‘70s soul rhythms and a more swinging tempo, but the song is slowed down just a touch for the EP to a bossa nova groove. With a wash of strings making an appearance by the second verse, the results are more elegant than the single, though each is sublime.

Both the acoustic “Love Within” and longing laced “Loved” are soothing, introspective ballads on Shangri La. The duets with strings on “Love Within” and subdued guitar on “Loved,” with the minimal production techniques used on both, make a listener feel as though Tillman is serenading them directly, causing swoons. 

Recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this four-song ode to love, created with the help of producer Nick Graham-Smith and guitarist Sergio Sayeg, announces a bright young talent who joins such newcomers as Kwabs, Daley, Moses Sumney, Marquis Tolliver, Josh Osho, and Sid Sriram in renewing hope in the next generation of soul males under 30 with something to say and the vocal gifts to say it. Welcome to a much needed club of fresh talent and real musicians. Highly Recommended.

By L. Michael Gipson

 

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