CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Cameron Graves: L.A. Steel

Rooted in both jazz and heavy metal, the keyboardist, composer, and sideman for Kamasi Washington and Stanley Clarke plays solos you can mosh to

Cameron Graves
Cameron Graves (photo: Rob Shanahan)

It was the late fall of 2019, and Cameron Graves took the stage at the Blue Note in New York City looking ready for business—in a doom-metal band. He wore a biker-like vest revealing the colorful tattoos on his upper arms; his long, tightly curled hair was tied in the back, falling to his shoulders like the tail of a black comet. But Graves was here with the Stanley Clarke Band, playing electric keyboards in the bassist’s powerhouse sextet. And it is a vital role, at once anchoring and dynamic, as Clarke showed when he introduced Graves as a featured soloist in a turbulent extension of Joe Henderson’s “Black Narcissus.”

For the next 20 minutes, Graves—best known as the pianist in the West Coast Get Down, the Los Angeles progressive-jazz collective that jumped to acclaim in 2015 on saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s triple-disc landmark, The Epic—unleashed a kaleidoscopic attack with roots in fusion, R&B, and hard rock. He addressed Henderson’s melody with sprightly poise, wrapped Clarke’s muscular stride in circular-staircase figures, and hit off-center chords with brass-knuckle force. As the band hurtled to the finish, Graves laid a cool-ballad rapture against the racing pulse, then detonated a frenzied series of Latin-ized runs. And he did it all with delighted aplomb, chewing on what seemed like a giant gumball as light bounced off the sparkling stud in his chin.

“There are a lot of piano players with a lot of technique, but nobody plays like Cameron,” Clarke said a few weeks after that show. “You could spend a lifetime studying Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. Cameron has that.” But Graves, the bassist added, “is a complete musician. He has his own way of putting music together. The thing I love about Cameron is that he is not afraid to be himself.”

Graves is testing that courage in a profound way with Seven, his second album under his own name and first with a bold, new quartet. Washington, a close friend and collaborator since high school, is a special guest on two tracks, but that’s as close as Seven comes to the spiritual-jazz aura and expanse of The Epic and Graves’ 2017 solo debut Planetary Prince, recorded with Washington and other members of the West Coast Get Down at the same 2012 marathon of sessions. On those records, Graves was a sweeping and charging voice on piano, invoking McCoy Tyner’s radiant tonal spray and Cecil Taylor’s percussive abstraction with the melodic and harmonic attention cited by Clarke, descended from Hancock and Peterson.

Seven, in diametric contrast, is a hail of bullets: Graves leading bassist Max Gerl, guitarist Colin Cook, and drummer Mike Mitchell (an ex-Clarke bandmate) in a hammering shock of piano-driven riffing, ensemble rush, and hairpin rhythmic turns, mostly in three-minute jolts marked by blitzkrieg solos and the occasional pause for meditative breath. There is the warming balm of Washington’s tenor cameos and Graves’ solo reverie “Fairytales.” But next to the mission-statement scale of The Epic, Seven is as hard and taut as a Ramones album, a fusion fired in the mosh pit.

“The music I love to write most is metal—the lines, the drops, the sections,” Graves admitted, grinning broadly in a Manhattan coffee shop during that week with Clarke at the Blue Note. “I took that philosophy and applied it to jazz. Instead of writing a head, then everybody takes off on a solo for 15 minutes, I wrote compositions with different sections, and we all played the lines.

“Usually, that’s rock—some Van Halen shit,” Graves added with a bright laugh. “But that also comes from the influence of Return to Forever—Chick Corea wrote a lot like that—and Frank Zappa.” Another crucial inspiration is the Swedish extreme-metal group Meshuggah, “my main band,” Graves said, since his late teens. He described their complex hellfire as “Allan Holdsworth meets Zappa meets Pantera. When you hear that level of playing, your brain tunes into the difficulty, the training level of it. At that point, it becomes on a par with jazz, because jazz has its own practice, philosophy, and training.”

Graves, 38, comes “from improvisation,” as he put it: eight years of weekly gigging at a now-defunct Hollywood venue called the Piano Bar with Washington and other players who would eventually become associated with the West Coast Get Down, including trombonist Ryan Porter, bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, and Thundercat’s older brother, drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr. “That’s all we did, just like John Coltrane—have a head and hog off into space for an hour.” But Graves designed Seven “to slay with composition. There’s no floating going on.”

“We’ve been talking about that for years—‘We want to blow the world up,’” says Mitchell, recalling Graves’ writing and plotting while they were on the road with Clarke. When Graves finally got his concept and quartet into the studio in February 2018, the bulk of Seven was cut “in like three days,” the drummer says, after minimal rehearsal. “Cameron would go, ‘This is the top, get it [makes a crazy-riff sound]? Now this part [makes another riff noise]. Okay, let’s play it all together.’

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“We were super-juiced to be rocking out with that much musical integrity,” Mitchell raves. He acknowledges that if Graves had played electric keyboards on Seven, the effect might have been less forbidding—a more accessible fusion-metal. But Graves “didn’t want to play the stuff on keyboards, because he wanted people to recognize the special power of a real piano.”

Unfortunately, Graves’ 2020 release and touring plans for Seven were shut down by the pandemic; the album is now set to come out in early 2021. But he was heartened by his last gigs before lockdown with the Seven band in Tokyo. “We had an amazing response,” Graves says during a recent phone call. “It’s intricate playing with a lot of music inside, but the crowds loved that fire from the stage. Every song—people erupted with applause. That totally confirmed that something great is going on here, that this is the direction for me.”

David Fricke

David Fricke has written about music for more than four decades for publications including Rolling Stone, MOJO, the late great British weekly Melody Maker and now JazzTimes. He is a DJ at Sirius XM Radio, a Grammy-nominated writer of album liner notes and a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism.