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Cameron Graves: Inventing Thrash-Jazz

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cameron Graves

Scott Krane By

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I know that I have a style that’s kind of in-between the lines, and that can be hard sometimes, because, especially my band, and the way we play, we’re too hard for jazz stages, but not hard enough for hardcore stages, and that’s a funny thing to deal with, especially for marketing...
—Cameron Graves
Pianist and composer, Cameron Graves, arrived on the scene in his late teens and early twenties, possessing a proclivity for classical music, an unquenchable passion for heavy metal, and a jazz sensibility and lexicon of musicality. According to the website of Mack Avenue Records, the label that signed Graves and put out his debut solo release, 2017's Planetary Prince, Graves tags his sound as "thrash-jazz," especially the music heard on his follow-up release for Mack Avenue Records, Seven, released earlier in 2021.

"I had already [been] doing jazz...and I was part founder of the Young Jazz Giants, with Ronald Bruner (drums) and Steven Bruner "Thundercat" (bass), and Kamasi Washington," said Graves. "With our group, Young Jazz Giants, I was always doing gigs. There was also another band in Los Angeles, they didn't have a name but they were friended by Miles Mosley (bass), [and Ryan Porter (trombone)] and they were always doing gigs in Los Angeles, so we came together as a 10-piece at Piano Bar..." Graves says, explaining the genesis of the line-ups for his band. "At Piano Bar, we would bring in our own tunes, we wouldn't play standards, we weren't playing covers, we were playing our original songs, and that became a cool exercise, to bring in our tunes and play in front of people, especially drunk people; and so each member [sic] would bring in tunes, and I started developing tunes that would be really powerful tunes to get people to dance, jump, get the club started, get the club popping and then we went into the studio with Miles Mosley, to do this month-long recording, with Kamasi [Washington], and me and Ryan Porter and Miles Bruner," he continues, "We came together as a 10-piece band...and that's how you get Miles Mosley's Uprising (Verve, 2017), that's how you get Planetary Prince (Mack Avenue Records). I did not like that recording at that studio so I chose to do another recording at another studio on my own, with my own ensemble."

2017's Planetary Prince and 2021's Seven are extremely different records. The instrumentation is different, the style of music is slightly different, and especially noticeable is the change in the length of tracks. Whereas on the former album, the songs tend to stretch past 10 minutes, on Seven the songs are mostly all close to the three-minute mark. It is evident that Graves puts a lot of thought into song titles. On both albums, the names of the tracks enjoy a fun splash of typology. Whereas, Satan is a recurring theme on Planetary Prince, on Seven the names of the songs are all allusions to The Urantia Book. Urantia... is almost like a spiritual tome..." explains Graves, "It is a book of explanations about the whole outer universe, if you would, the spiritual universe and the physical universe, and it goes into depth about outside our galaxy and it talks about deities, and it goes into all the denominations of spiritual consciousness, and being," he continues." And then it comes back to talking about our planet, and where it is in the solar system...It really explains a lot, and then you wonder where it comes from, and I've done a little research, it comes from a doctor," he says, ..."And that's what makes you kind of skeptical; and then you read it...but you can't read it fast, you read it slow and you have to understand every sentence...I wanted to marry that to my music in a way..."

Graves is a longtime member of saxophonist Kamasi Washington's group, the West Coast Get Down. He explains, " Seven is more my own expression away from the West Coast Get Down sound. So the West Coast Get Down is a band, that's a 10-piece band that we ended up putting together. We had the Piano Bar experience for 10 [or] 15 years, all the records come out of that, Planetary Prince comes out of that...that's a certain sound character of performance," he explained, continuing that, "We call that the style, the certain style; so with the horns, you have horns on there, that was our West Coast Get Down sound, that we developed and Kamasi [Washington] took that, the Kamasi sound that you hear now...is that West Coast Get Down Sound." Indeed, Planetary Prince features horns, while the new album, Seven features an electric guitar. "Seven is a breakaway from that; Seven is my own style, my own character of music [sic], stemming from my own inspirations, amalgamating into one record. And that has to do with growing up heavily with different types of sounds, we're talking about heavy, we're talking about classical (I still practice classical today), where you go to a teacher for 15 or 16 years, and then getting into rock because of R&B and soul, like my father."

Graves' father, who he cites as his main inspiration and influence, was a soul singer, going back to the 1960s and '70s. "My father, his name is Carl Graves...he has a song called 'Baby, Hang Up The Phone....'and then as the years go on he gets into Oingo Boingo...and because of my father, he's the one that really started me and taught me jazz music, because he was the one who was always playing [John] Coltrane and Art Tatum...and also Stevie Wonder, and all the soul and R&B type of stuff throughout the '50s, '60s, '70s, so you have all that influence," he expands. "And then I became a Jimi Hendrix fan for a long time, (I still am), but in terms of non-stop listening to Jimi Hendrix; so I had all those influences."

Graves explains what makes the album, Seven, unique. "I did a pop act, The Score, when I was 20-years-old and we toured with that band for eight or nine years; we did a record out there and only a single was released. And it was like a 'boy band' with instruments, like Backstreet Boys or N'Sync...it was more like pop-funk, funk-pop music. And so that was a deep dive into pop music, into hip-hop. We would get together and hang out and talk about Los Angeles. In the '90s and 2000s, we were in high school...in Los Angeles there's a lot of metal, a lot of great metal bands come from Los Angeles, and so there's that side...so all of that stuff comes together in Seven. That's what you're hearing. I'm pulling everything, I'm putting it into Seven."

As for Planetary Prince, Graves' debut solo release, and the difference in song length, instrumentation and style, Graves says, "Planetary Prince is more indicative of a jazz record where you have longer 10 and 15-minute tunes, paying homage to the Village Vanguard records, a lot of those type of jazz records, especially John Coltrane records, where you have three or four tunes, and they're each 30-minutes long. Seven was my idea of more commercializing and actually appealing to people's attention span with music in the current times," he says. "You have to understand that most of the people now, besides the Baby Boomer Generation; the X Generation; the Millennials; the Z Generation, the attention span—the audible attention span, is way less...in the '80s, all the programs got slashed in the schools, and music is not a mandatory class, it's more of an elective, so public school specifically, that's like the main schools that kids go to...so since then [sic] kids are growing up without the teaching of music, not the influence but the teaching of music. So you don't really know how much skill goes into the playing of music really well, when you've never tried it yourself...; you're appreciation for better and better music goes down, you don't recognize it, you don't hear it, you don't see it, you go with what you know, and that is just a funny psychology, a psychological thing happens when you don't grow up with [music] in your life."

Graves tells the story about how he came to be signed as a Mack Avenue recording artist. "Mack Avenue is a big company, and the cool thing is they were willing to take me on. I know that I have a style that's kind of in-between the lines, and that can be hard sometimes, because, especially my band, and the way we play, we're too hard for jazz stages, but not hard enough for hardcore stages, and that's a funny thing to deal with, especially for marketing, I try to push it...I give them credit for taking it on...I have a wonderful partner...and my manager, as well...we're going to push the project."

In the wake of the pandemic, and the country's moving closer to total inoculation, Graves plans on hitting the road. "We definitely plan on touring. Right now, it really is based on the logistical rules, and now everything is loosening everything is going back, it's not going to be long now till..the whole thing about concerts you've got to know, it's all about packing out the place, that's how the business works, you want to have the place packed out...so now that that's coming back...people are going to want to get out and go, that's the one thing that never dies, concerts and sports teams...it's going to be great."

While, the albums Planetary Prince and Seven are unmistakably jazz; it is evident that the musical genre that is Graves' actual preference is heavy metal. "I started getting into rock when I was about 11-years-old. I got my first guitar, my parents were pretty supportive, I didn't really come from a rich family, I was like lower middle-class, but my parents are very loving people; they supported my brother and I," he says. "My father bought me a guitar when I was about 10-years-old, and I took a few guitar lessons, and I was doing piano lessons, and it was about learning piano, I did recitals, classical recitals. Then I got a guitar and I started messing around with the guitar. And my dad had a friend, a guitarist...when I was about 10, he would teach me, he was just showing me stuff on guitar," he expands, "And then I started getting a lot into Living Colour, and Eddie Van Halen; I went from Jimi Hendrix, to Eddie Van Halen to Living Colour; both me and my brother. I have a brother named Taylor Graves who's a lot more soulful than me, he's also a pianist; we have a music scoring team called the Graves Brothers."

But Graves' taste in music listening was not confined to rock and metal. He embarked in the brave exploration of all the sounds available to a music consumer, in his youth. "Then, I left rock 'n roll for a while, to pursue classical and hip-hop; I was into that for a second, and then when I was about 19, somebody showed me a Machine Head record, and I remember the power of that sound," he says. "And then from there I got into System Of a Down, and then from System of a Down, I went straight to Slipknot, and Slipknot was killing shit, they were crazy as hell, the masks were crazy, especially the Red Album...the Silver Album, both of those two, one from like '95, the other one from like 2000...Both me and my brother, and we had a bunch of friends that were into it, and that's when that stuff started getting popular around '98 '99, 2000, '01, '02, '03, that's when Death Metal, Hyper Metal [were in vogue]...we were into it, we'd go straight to the mosh pit...it was way fun, and some of us got hurt."

Graves relates how he came to work with Jada Pinkett Smith and how he converted her into a heavy metal fan. "By the time I was 22, I did a Jada Pinkett Smith audition, she was looking for a musician...I was like, 'Wow,' I didn't finish college, I was touring a little bit...and that's when Jada Pinkett was having me audition. I started showing Jada some metal stuff...I started showing her Slipknot and stuff like that, and she got way into it and she decides to do a whole metal record, and that was the Wicked Wisdom record, in 2005," he explains,

"Metal is more of a passion than classical music is to me, than jazz is to me...[in the mosh pit] when you do fall down and you get slammed, they pick you up, they might buy you another drink and throw you back in there. We toured with Wicked Wisdom for two three years, we did the OzzFest tour when it was like three months, and the Alice in Chains tour. So, yeah, I went all the way with metal, metal is always going to be with me, man."

When asked what rare and esoteric metal albums are inspiring to him, Graves replies by citing his immersion in world music, to begin answering the question, "I have to be honest with you, there's a lot of metal out there, there's a lot of garage band metal that I'm not into. I've studied music for a long time, 35 years of music, every type of music, when I did three, four years of Indian music, I was playing tabla, and I did six hours a day on tabla, I went to the top with that too, I did a bunch of performances...the masters over there [Northern India] have the same kind of intensity. I got into it at UCLA, [where] they have a musicology program...they showed all the different [instruments], African, and Eastern European, and Indian and Asian instruments, and that's when somebody came out with the tabla and they were just killing it, and I was like, 'Oh my God!' I fell in love with it, I was like 'Oh, I've got to learn this instrument!' I'm not going to be into crashing and banging and that technique and amateur type of drum beats, and not being able to be clean on your technique and your agility to play, I've been around the top musicians," he says.

"Miles Bruner is still the best drummer in the world...the hip-hop [feel] the jazz [feel], when you go to swing...do they sound more like Tony [Williams], do they sound more like Jack DeJohnette, do they sound like Art Blakey...the metal band that I got most into was Meshuga, and they are the top...they're taking from Allan Holdsworth, man, we're talking about Allan Holdsworth, here. They're taking from that, they're taking from Frank Zappa, the Hot Rats (Bizzare/Reprise, 1969) record, where they're doing like 7/8...and changing in and out of time signatures...they're an old metal band, they're back there with Metallica, they're from the '80s, they just weren't as popular in America, they're from Scandinavia...they have a record out that comes from like 1987, so they've been out...and if you listen to their records...it literally sounds like Mahavishnu [Orchestra]...the time signatures, the chord progressions, the moving in and out of sections...not just the time signatures, but feeling the pocket...you can dance. If you go to their concert, everybody is head-banging at the same time."

The versatility and well-roundedness of Graves' taste knows no bounds. When asked whom he would like to work with if given the chance, he cites a hip-hop producer, "I've always wanted to work with Timbaland, I am very influenced by [him]...there's a lot of producers in the late '90s that we would listen to, we would make tracks, and we would invite all the rappers and singers over to our studio, we perfected our track-making skills..."

When asked what is the difference between inspiration and influence, Graves responds, "Influence is more like a mental manipulation, inspiration is to be able to get somebody to understand the way, and they know it, they intrinsically then know it, they pursue it by moving forward...versus influence is mental manipulation, making you psychologically believe that you have to do it to provide salvation for yourself. Inspiration is when I said it, you heard it, and it made sense to you..."

As for the future, Graves says, "Me and my brother are going to put out another Graves Brothers record; our last record was 2011, 2012, it should still be on Spotify, that was without a label, I did that on my own...we're actually working on a couple of films right now...when Wicked Wisdom ended, I still kept in touch with Jada Pinkett, and I was still in touch...not just with her, but with her kids, Willow and Jada, were also doing music projects and she was doing her first feature director's cut called, Human Contract, in 2008, and it was her first time directing film, and I asked her if I could do the music, and I sent her a couple of tracks, scenes that I put together, and she went for it...then I brought Taylor [Graves] in on it; I've been working with ProTools and Logic for a long time. ProTools is like an industry standard [and that's when] you go into music engineering."

On the final track on the new album, Seven, Graves sings; something he did not try on the increasingly jazzy prior album, Planetary Prince. He explains, "I've always sang, I started singing at 15, I come from a singing father...he was amongst a collective almost, and he comes from Canada, he's from Calgary; he grew up in Vancouver [in the] '60s...that kind of singing, that talent, those inspirations... [once he got to] Los Angeles, one of the top gigs back then, in the '70s, was session work; more music was being recorded...you had to put a band together...some guys were doing one session, some guys were doing two, three, four sessions per day...and sometimes a single scale, double scale, triple scale, like $1000 per day. So my dad lived in Los Angeles, and it became this collective of singers. So I grew up in that circle. I was in a choir, a couple of choirs...we performed for Bill Clinton at one of his Democratic rally parties...and that's when we did a couple of movies, Amistad, we sang we were in the choir, me and my brother...so, I was always singing, I grew up singing, I took singing in high school, and so I'm singing all the way through, then we have all of our groups with singing in them."

As for what the future holds for Graves, he is knee-deep in various projects, both touring to support, Seven, as well as a reunion with Kamasi Washington's West Coast Get Down. We can expect many more musical adventures from this young wunderkind.

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