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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 Brooklyn 2017
Cameron Graves at BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn, October 2017 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

“The music I love to write most is metal—the lines, the drops, the sections. I took that philosophy and applied it to jazz.”

“The melting point started early for me,” Graves declared with gratitude halfway through that first long, intense conversation in the coffee shop. He was barely six years old, growing up in the L.A. neighborhood of Van Nuys, when his father Carl began taking Cameron and his younger brother Taylor to late-’80s concerts by the New Wave combo Oingo Boingo—because Carl was playing keyboards and singing in that band. Originally from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, Carl had been a member of the Vancouver pop group Skylark (alongside a pre-platinum David Foster) before scoring an R&B chart hit of his own, “Baby, Hang Up the Phone,” in 1974.

“I loved that speed-punk rock,” Cameron said of those Oingo Boingo shows (where he got to know songwriting leader Danny Elfman, already on a second, successful track as a film composer). But Carl also introduced his sons to jazz—“Coltrane, Art Tatum,” Cameron remembers—as well as Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix, which led the brothers to the ferocious virtuosity of Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. By his late teens, Cameron—steeped in Chopin, Mozart, and Bach from childhood piano lessons—was obsessed with alternative metal: the near-lunatic precision of full-on ragers such as System of a Down, Slipknot, and ultimately Meshuggah.

“As I was writing Seven,” Graves said, “I came from the concept of ‘How am I going to translate what I love to write most [mimics a full-tilt shred on guitar] on piano? How am I going to make that work here?’”

Graves’ fateful pivot into jazz came in the ninth grade when he met Washington, a classmate at Hamilton High School in Culver City. They were soon bandmates as well in school-system ensembles, most notably the Multi-School Jazz Band under legendary pianist/educator Reggie Andrews—a virtual farm team for the West Coast Get Down that included Porter, the Bruner brothers and bassist Miles Mosley, another charter member. Graves, Washington, and the Bruners initially formed a quartet, Young Jazz Giants, playing hard bop with sharp edges and a rapidly growing book of originals. Their second gig, booked by Graves’ father, was at the Hollywood Bowl—in the foyer before the main event—and they recorded a future collectors’ item, Young Jazz Giants, issued by the independent Birdman label in 2004.

The pianist was only 16 when he, Ronald, and Washington auditioned for a TV film scored by Stanley Clarke. “I needed some young musicians in the show—to not just play but be filmed,” the bassist explains. “And they were all there, each looking weirder than the next.” Ronald got the job. “He had the most character. But I noticed these guys, that they had it all together for their age.”

Clarke eventually hired Graves for his own band in 2013. But even before that, he says, “I was telling people about these guys. I remember talking to [producer] Don Was: ‘There is a layer of musicians in L.A. that you better take notice of.’ Nobody was paying attention, none of the L.A. press. But I knew that one day something would happen.”

That would take a while. Graves went to UCLA, studying under drummer Billy Higgins, saxophonist Harold Land, and composer/arranger Gerald Wilson. Land “kicked me off the piano one time,” Graves confesses with an embarrassed smile. “We were playing together, and I didn’t have my rhythm changes down.” In 2001, another teacher, the R&B session veteran Leon Ware—he co-wrote and co-produced Marvin Gaye’s I Want You—took Graves and the Bruners on a Japanese tour as sidemen. It was right before Graves’ midterm exams. “When I came back,” he says, “my grades were bad. My counselor was like, ‘You gotta make that life choice.’” Graves dropped out.

Like Washington, who was a touring sideman for the rapper Snoop Dogg and has written string arrangements for hip-hop star Kendrick Lamar, Graves worked in contemporary R&B as a session musician, producer, and artist, recording with Taylor as the Graves Brothers. But he’s definitely the only member of the West Coast Get Down who can boast these credits: opening for Britney Spears in 2004 and doing the 2005 Ozzfest tour on guitar and keyboards in Wicked Wisdom, a metal combo fronted by Jada Pinkett Smith (actor Will Smith’s wife).

“It’s 100 percent influenced by growing up like that,” Graves says of his music, especially Seven. “The older legends, the older cats—sometimes they get mad at young guys for not respecting the tradition. But Miles Davis would hate that you were playing how it was supposed to be.” Graves hears that all the time in Clarke’s band. “Stanley is always going, ‘Stop, I’ve heard those records. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear you. What do you have to say?’”

Mitchell is even more strident. “The jazz police are dead,” the drummer says bluntly. “We’re not with that anymore. If we really need to play what you want us to play, we can. But if you can’t jump on this Meshuggah thing or this J Dilla beat”—referring to the late, influential hip-hop producer—“then you’re the weaker person. You’re mad at me because I can play more than one way?”

Seven has “a jazz inflection,” Graves claims. “But we wanted to make it more concise—just hit you bang after bang.” When asked how he would respond to someone who complained that Seven doesn’t swing, Graves explodes with laughter.

“It doesn’t swing? I would have to tell that person to not even be looking for that,” he says, dropping to an earnest, almost pleading tone. “Somebody who is looking for swing, you’re trying to find what you know. Let go and just listen. Because it will hit you here”—he points to his heart—“instead of here,” pointing to his head. “Stop looking for the swing. Just enjoy the newness.”

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.