Cameron Graves, pianist and founding member of the Los Angeles-based West Coast Get Down collective, releases the genre-bending Planetary Prince (Mack Avenue Records) February 24, with a mix of cosmological, spiritual and political themes. It's his debut album as a leader, featuring collective members Kamasi Washington (saxophone), Stephen Bruner, a.k.a Thundercat (bass), Ryan Porter (trombone) and Ronald Bruner Jr. (drums).
Planetary Prince picks up where Washington's impactful album, The Epic (featuring Graves) left off, blending jazz with European classical music, prog rock, metal and hip-hop. With no shortage of infectious energy, superior playing and captivating melodies, the album also strives to be consciousness-broadening; its title is derived from The Urantia Book, an obscure volume addressing God, humanity and Biblical themes through spirituality and cosmology—elements Graves has been fascinated for many years. Other tracks have titles such as "Adam and Eve," "The Lucifer Rebellion," "Satania Our Solar System," "Andromeda" and "Isle of Love" (reference to an imagined place inhabited by a race of pure love).
At 35, Graves has been playing music for over three decades, bringing a unique approach to the piano. His skill is matched by a fluid, imaginative style drawing from multiple genres. Graves' father, a singer/producer/keyboard player, initiated him into music at the age of four. Classically trained, Graves got into jazz as a teenager, when he met Kamasi Washington and other young musicians who would later become members of the WCGD collective. Together they started exploring jazz giants such as John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, both major influences. Rehearsing and playing in a multi-school jazz band, they founded the Young Jazz Giants, made their debut recording, and began performing regularly.
In addition to his longstanding collaboration with WCGD, and earlier with his brother Taylor in the R&B/fusion duo The Graves Brothers, Graves has worked with illustrious jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, as well as Jada Pinkett Smith; his work with her nu-metal band Wicked Wisdom lead into the world of film and television scoring. Polish composer and piano virtuoso Frédéric Chopin (b. 1810) is one of his strongest musical influences, as is the Minneapolis Sound— particularly early Prince, Morris Day and The Time.
Noisey: Planetary Prince is not only your album title, but your pseudonym. Who—or what—is this entity?
Cameron Graves: There are actually planetary princes that are associated with all the planets; one spiritual being, a consciousness that resides around the planet itself. I'm kind of like a messenger, channeling something from the Universe—I'm not sure exactly where. When I'm composing, the tunes people often end up liking come to me very quickly: 2-3 minutes. I don't even have to think about it. It just comes in.
And so you conceive of yourself as the Prince of Planet Earth…?
Many of the tunes I was writing while playing at [Hollywood's] Piano Bar had a lot of energy. We played the title track—a dark jazz tune that mimics a metal energy—and everyone in the club went crazy. They would call that song out every single week. So when I was doing the recording, I thought I could name the whole album Planetary Prince, and build a brand.
You've mentioned J Dilla as one of your most prominent influences. What is it about his work that was so impactful?
The late 1990s-early 2000s were very influential; it was the end of high school, and we were listening to a lot of underground hip hop—especially A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots. J Dilla produced Busta Rhymes and Slum Village. If you study his production, you can tell he researched many obscure records, picking the best samples; that was his whole way of composing. The type of samples he'd choose is amazing, and the way he'd create the drum track and the whole beat was extremely interesting. In a way, it could be considered advanced music, even though it's derived from sampling. Many of his samples have a 4- or 8-bar loop, which influenced me a lot. I started comping with the same type of loop, which was like the glue to the music we were playing. We often get into improvisational stuff, so if you do a 4- or 8-bar loop, it's something that people can hold on to.
And what about [Swedish math-death-metal band] Meshuggah?
I'm a big metalhead. I grew up playing guitar as well, listening to Al Di Meola, Eddie Van Halen, Living Color. I was a huge Slipknot fan—the math, the fast double pedal stuff. And then a friend showed me Meshuggah, and they blew me away. You need to be an advanced musician, to really know the instrument, in order to play like that. They did the craziest time signatures, like Frank Zappa, with a rock approach—but they took it all the way. That changed my brain around; I'm able to hear 7/4 in a very clear-cut way that's beautiful.
I understand you practice [Chinese martial art] Xing Yi Quan. How does this impact your work?
It influences my whole life. The idea is to go forward, to die going forward. You take that and apply it to your whole life—music, business, relationships. If there is a road block, you try to get over the hump and move forward. I don't let anything stop my focus, concentration, or drive. And this goes for music, too. I practice piano the way I practice martial arts: constantly working on technique. I also used to play tabla and studied with Indian musicians for a long time, which influenced the way I practice and play. They do crazy things like practice sessions that last 20 hours a day, for 40-50 days.
The tune we're premiering here, "End of Corporatism"—a searing, abstract funk showcasing both you and Thundercat—seems to have a political message.
Money is now controlling everything. We need to get back to small mom-and-pop businesses, to the bartering system, where people really care about their product and are trying to help others. Then we'd get real things, good food etc.—not just plastic products that numb us. It's easy to hoard money—especially the way corporations do it, with loopholes in federal taxes and interest rates, stealing the people's money and hoarding it. It becomes a kind of aristocracy. The corporation becomes the king, because it has so much lobbying power and special interest power, which takes away our freedom. We're living in a bubble of imaginary freedom.
This is right out of George Orwell. . . But I have hope. When you don't feel sick, you don't feel the need to heal yourself. America got sick, and now we're waking up to that, and we need healing. And the unity that's starting to happen—the protests, the coming together— is good; we discover we are more united than divided.
Photo by Anna Webber.
Sharonne Cohen is a writer based in Montreal. You can read her past work here.