Cameron Graves, aka The Planetary Prince, Brings Compelling Thrash-Jazz on ‘Seven’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Seeing the term thrash-jazz had this writer scrambling for reference points.  As Jimi Hendrix taught us, creating one’s own genre can lead to much success. What’s especially revealing about Cameron Graves’ Seven is that he stands apart from the heavy electric fray surrounding him, choosing to play the acoustic piano rather than synths or Rhodes. Yes, upon an initial listen, the juggernaut metal force and hardcore precision can knock you back. After all, Graves grew up in metal-rich Los Angeles, headbanging to Living Colour as a kid and, after immersing himself in jazz and classical studies for years, reigniting his love for hard rock through records by Pantera, Slipknot and his most profound metal influence, the Swedish band Meshuggah.  Knowing that Graves is part of the West Coast Get Down helps the uninitiated. If you’ve seen or heard Thundercat you understand. And, despite the heavy metal overtones, one can arguably say there is more jazz here than with the former. 

Seven is the follow-up to 2017’s Planetary Prince where you heard several influences merge. Cameron’s father, Carl Graves, was a great soul singer and you can hear his imprint, along with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, on “Eternal Paradise,” which marks the younger Graves’ vocal debut. Throughout the album bassist Stanley Clarke’s generation of jazz-rock fusion pioneers is a source of inspiration. “Our mission is to continue that legacy of advanced music that was started by bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and Return to Forever,” Graves says. “That was instilled in us by the masters. Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock—these guys sat with us and told us, ‘Look, man, you’ve got to carry this on.’”

The “us” that Graves refers to would include the core quartet, as well as the West Coast Get Down, members of which played on Graves’ debut such as saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who guests on two of Graves’ 11 new tracks on Seven; bassists (the aforementioned) Thundercat and Miles Mosley; drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin; and others. Growing up, the West Coast Get Down absorbed the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, the daring hip-hop experimentalism of J Dilla, and the rap and pop of the day, and all those touchstones resonate here. Early on, Graves’ jazz-obsessed pals would scoff at the pianist’s taste for heavy music, but not for long. “I brought Meshuggah to the game, and you can’t talk smack on Meshuggah. They are supreme musicians,” Graves says, chuckling. “It became legit after that amongst the L.A. scene.” 

As you might guess, Graves is a deep cat. A devoted student of the still-mysterious Urantia Book and its mission to, as Graves puts it, “explain the deepness of the spiritual and the physical universe together,” he named his sophomore album for the overwhelming presence and impact of seven throughout global spiritual traditions. (Not surprisingly, Graves has a penchant for writing in odd time signatures, particularly seven). “There’s always a seven and there’s always a trinity. In all of the galaxies in the universe, everything operates off of the trinity of Thought, Love and Action,” Graves says. Some of this thinking appears in the song titles – “Sacred Spheres,” “Paradise Trinity,” “Super Universes,” “Mansion Worlds.” Now that’s not new considering spiritual and space-obsessed jazz albums (Sun Ra especially), but Graves’ approach is unique.

So, given that Graves stays with the acoustic piano, his quartet supplies most of the thrash-jazz assault. Graves compares guitarist Colin Cook’s lightning-fast speed to Allan Holdsworth. Drummer Mike Mitchell is well-renowned as one of the most powerful drummers in jazz, especially in fusion circles. He and Graves both toured with Stanley Clarke. Graves comments, “He can play hip-hop, jazz. I’ve seen him play every style of swing like Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones. But I’ve always wanted to hear Mike play rock and metal, and this was my chance.” Through Mitchell, Graves connected with bassist Max Gerl, whose brilliant ears and impeccable time-feel place him the same conversation of bassists that the pianist has collaborated with, among them Thundercat, Hadrien Feraud, Mosley and, of course, Clarke.

There’s some melodic jazz here as well. Surely “Sacred Sphere” opens furiously but “Paradise Trinity,” featuring Kamasi Washington, will remind of those iconic ‘70s fusion bands like Weather Report and Return to Forever.  Thunder ensues though on “Sons of Creation” with Cook all over the fretboard and Mitchell creating mayhem in support.  Washington returns for the title track, which is more spiritual and has some of Graves’ best piano spots.  Keep in mind, of course, that Graves was a major fixture on Kamasi’s breakthrough The Epic and its successor, Heaven and Earth. “The Life Carriers,” Super Universes,” and “Red” all carry frenetic head-banging energy before Graves calms it all down going solo piano and playing beautifully on “Fairytales.”

The thrash-jazz returns with “Master Spirits” although Graves piano adds some joyous chords to the dense undercurrent before Cook goes on another of his wild excursions.  The band continues the sonic barrage on “Mansion Worlds” before closing with Graves’ only vocal on “Eternal Paradise.” Cameron’s father, Carl Graves, was a great soul singer and you can hear the imprint he made on his son here. It makes one wish we heard more vocals on the project.

So, there’s more than one style at work here, upon which Graves comments, “This project has two different characters. When you play these songs on solo piano, they sound just like a contemporary classical song, like Debussy or Ravel. But when you play them with the band, it turns into this hard-rock record.” Even if you reference Kamasi, Thundercat, or any of the other likeminded L.A. scene artists, Graves approach is unique. It’s almost impossible to prepare for. Tread carefully and if you find yourself digging it, bask in it.

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