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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 2019
With Stanley Clarke’s hand (left) at the Blue Note, November 2019 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

“Stanley [Clarke] 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?’”

Graves was hanging out at a cousin’s house about 10 years ago—“smoking some weed, talking,” he says—when he spotted an odd-looking volume on a bookshelf, “big and fat with a leather cover and those thin Bible pages. I said, ‘What’s this, some Lord of the Rings shit?’” The cousin replied, “Man, check that out.”

That was Graves’ introduction to The Urantia Book, a massive text formulated in the 1920s and ’30s by a Chicago-based group of spiritualists but not formally published until 1955. Adherents claim that The Urantia Book’s elaborate philosophical and scientific explications of God, the universe, and the history of Earth (rechristened Urantia) clarify and enhance the tenets of Christian faith. Doubters file it under science fiction.

Hendrix and guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan carried The Urantia Book with them on the road. Bassist Jaco Pastorius named his piece “Havona” on Weather Report’s 1977 album Heavy Weather after the universe where, the book says, Paradise is located; Urantia itself is in one of seven mega-universes. Graves, another devoted reader, has named Seven and all of his pieces on the record after references in the doctrine (“Sacred Spheres,” “The Life Carriers,” “Mansion Worlds”). The cosmology is all over Planetary Prince as well.

“You don’t need to know any of the philosophy,” Graves assures. “You can bring your own.” Or you can just bang your head to the band. “There is a lot of seven in music actually,” he contends, calling 7/4 “one of the best jazz-fusion time signatures. That’s the crazy we’re-in-space time.”

Mitchell puts it another way, drawing on his experience as “a Christian-raised Black man in the Baptist church.” The basic thrust of The Urantia Book, he says, “is how to love your neighbor better. With that mindset, playing this music, we’re actually helping each other out. It’s a musical way of looking at helping your community.”

It is also a good definition of the founding energies and ongoing bonds in the West Coast Get Down. “In business, the concept of pulling the next guy up doesn’t exist,” Graves says. “When you’re blowing up, you want to blow up more. We never did what the Wu-Tang Clan did: put out a conglomerate record, put a flag in the sand. We couldn’t come to a decision on how to do that. But The Epic was our version of that, through Kamasi’s record.

“It still exists,” Graves says of the collective, pointing out that the members have used some of Washington’s gigs “as a reconvening moment, to come back together.” In fact, the pianist reveals in our update phone call, “I’ve been in touch with Ryan Porter a lot, talking about getting everybody together again to do an actual West Coast Get Down record. Ronald Bruner’s been on board for a while. And we’re not that far gone from the scene yet. If we came out with a record, it would blow up.”

As for Seven, despite its delayed release and the hold on his touring plans, Graves believes the serial dramas of 2020 have actually heightened the relevance in the music’s power and tensions. “When I first wrote it,” he says of Seven, “it was a test drive—to see if that sound could compete with the other modern sounds out there, especially Kamasi and Thundercat. Now I feel like it really illustrates the angst out there: the election, cops, the coronavirus.

“People are pissed off,” Graves says, “and here’s a record that understands how they feel. This is the sound of the era.”

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.