Seven (Artistry/Mack Avenue)

Cameron Graves 

Released February 19, 2021

JazzTimes Top 20 Jazz Albums of 2021

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2021




Pianist, composer and vocalist Cameron Graves calls the music he’s architected for his new Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Music Group release thrash-jazz, though that only begins to tell the story. Yes, upon an initial listen, the juggernaut metal force and hardcore precision of Seven can knock you back. After all, Graves grew up in metal-rich Los Angeles, headbanging to Living Colour as a kid and, after immersing himself in jazz and classical studies for years, reigniting his love for hard rock through records by Pantera, Slipknot and his most profound metal influence, Swedish titans Meshuggah.

But listen closer to Seven, Graves’ follow-up to 2017’s Planetary Prince (which Pitchfork called a “rousing debut”). “Los Angeles is a melting pot of everything,” Graves points out. His father, Carl Graves, was a great soul singer, and you can hear his imprint along with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, on “Eternal Paradise,” which marks the younger Graves’ vocal debut. Throughout the album, the generation of 1970s jazz-rock fusion pioneers is a source of inspiration. “Our mission is to continue that legacy of advanced music that was started by bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever,” Graves says. “That was instilled in us by the masters. Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock—these guys sat with us and told us, ‘Look, man, you’ve got to carry this on.’”

The “us” that Graves refers to would include the core quartet on Seven, as well as the West Coast Get Down, the now well-known expansive yet fraternal clique of high school friends who became some of the most influential jazz-rooted musicians to emerge in recent decades: saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who guests on two of Graves’ 11 new tracks; bassists Thundercat and Miles Mosley; drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin; and others. Growing up, the West Coast Get Down absorbed the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, the daring hip-hop experimentalism of J Dilla and the rap and pop of the day, and all of those touchstones resonate throughout Seven. Early on, Graves’ jazz-obsessed pals would scoff at the pianist’s taste for heavy music, but not for long. “I brought Meshuggah to the game, and you can’t talk smack on Meshuggah. They are supreme musicians,” Graves says, chuckling. “It became legit after that amongst the L.A. scene.”

But beyond its fearless new musical alchemy, Seven allows Graves – a.k.a. the Planetary Prince – to further explore his deep passion for a number of interrelated topics in and around theology, astronomy, astrology and martial arts. A devoted student of the still-mysterious Urantia Book and its mission to, as Graves puts it, “explain the deepness of the spiritual and the physical universe together,” he named his album for the overwhelming presence and impact of seven throughout global spiritual traditions. (Not surprisingly, Graves has a penchant for writing in odd time signatures, particularly seven).

“There’s always a seven and there’s always a trinity,” he explains, before going on to detail another omnipresent triptych. “In all of the galaxies in the universe, everything operates off of the trinity of Thought, Love and Action,” Graves says. Just as this new music invites repeat listens in a kind of decoding process, Graves’ song titles – “Sacred Spheres,” “Paradise Trinity,” “Super Universes,” “Mansion Worlds” and more – will inspire a sort of bewilderment that leads to an ongoing curiosity.

A testament to his fervor and deft technique, Graves leads his thrash-jazz assault from the acoustic piano rather than the synth, though he gets powerhouse help from a band he can’t help but brag about. He calls Colin Cook, whose harmonically ingenious yet blindingly fast playing can evoke Allan Holdsworth, a “guitar god, man. I mean, chops for days and musical knowledge beyond his years.” Graves has developed a telepathic connection with drummer Mike Mitchell during their time together on the road with Stanley Clarke. Still, his versatility and far-reaching mastery can astound the pianist. “No one has the over-the-top chops that he has; no one has the timing and syncopation skills that Mike possesses,” Graves says. “He can play hip-hop, jazz. I’ve seen him play every style of swing like Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones. But I’ve always wanted to hear Mike play rock and metal,” Graves adds, “and this was my chance.” Through Mitchell, Graves hooked up with bassist Max Gerl, whose brilliant ears and impeccable time-feel place him in a striking legacy of bassists that the pianist has collaborated with, among them Thundercat, Hadrien Feraud, Mosley and, of course, Clarke.

A soul-deep affinity for the peers who join him on the bandstand has been a continuing theme throughout Graves’ career. He met his musical comrades in the West Coast Get Down as a freshman in high school, and they nurtured their game-changing chemistry at a series of regular haunts that have entered the jazz lore: Doboy’s Dozens, 5th St. Dick’s, the Piano Bar in Hollywood, where the visibility, growing crowds and possibilities just seemed to surge.

Graves, like the rest of the West Coast Get Down, saw his profile explode following the 2015 release of Kamasi Washington’s debut, The Epic, easily on the short list of the most celebrated jazz releases of the 21st century. Since then, the collective has seen its members carve out their own identities, through their own acclaimed bands and releases and tours. “It’s beautiful,” Graves says of the last few years. “Those are my brothers.” With his actual brother, Taylor, Graves produced and performed pop music that earned them a major-label signing with MCA under Randy Jackson. Their recent collaborations included the score and related soundtrack album for Michelle Obama’s Becoming documentary for Netflix.

Camaraderie aside, some of the most interesting plans Graves has for the material on Seven have to do with solo performance. He includes one stunning solo-piano piece, “Fairytales,” but explains that the music was conceived to achieve varying impacts using different formats – contrasting performance situations he’ll no doubt explore in the months ahead. “This project has two different characters,” he says. “When you play these songs on solo piano, they sound just like a contemporary classical song, like Debussy or Ravel. But when you play them with the band, it turns into this hard-rock record.”

Track Listing:

1. Sacred Spheres (Cameron Graves) 03:03

2. Paradise Trinity (Cameron Graves) 03:12

3. Sons of Creation (Cameron Graves) 04:23

4. Seven (Cameron Graves) 03:06

5. The Life Carriers (Cameron Graves) 02:54

6. Super Universes (Cameron Graves) 02:43

7. Red (Cameron Graves) 02:58

8. Fairytales (Cameron Graves) 02:56

9. Master Spirits (Cameron Graves) 02:06

10. Mansion Worlds (Cameron Graves) 02:49

11. Eternal Paradise (Cameron Graves) 02:35


Cameron Graves: piano

Colin Cook: guitar

Max Gerl: bass

Mike Mitchell: drums


Kamasi Washington: tenor sax

Recorded February 8 – 18, 2018 and December 18, 2018 – February 1, 2019, at Sphere Studios, Los Angeles, CA; The Village Studio, Los Angeles, CA; Tubby Tune Studios, Los Angeles, CA

Producers: Gary Lux and Cameron Graves

Recording and Mixing: Gary Lux

Mastering: Dave Donnelly

Cover Design: Rob Shanahan


Jazz has always pushed at the boundaries; sometimes it happens when a new form breaks onto the scene (such as bebop), or when it fuses with other genres, such as rock, funk or hip-hop. If classical music was a language, it would be like Latin, hardly ever changing in the modern world. But jazz is more like English – it is constantly changing and evolving; adding new elements and borrowing from other languages. Whenever a new jazz genre emerges, it raises the inevitable question – is that jazz? This album will doubtless raise the same question for some readers of this website.
LA-based pianist and composer Cameron Graves is classically trained and grew up with a love for jazz, classical and heavy metal – one of his biggest musical influences is the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah. He describes the music on this album as a combination of Thrash Metal and Jazz (Thrash-Jazz or Thrazz?). If like me, you are not a heavy metal aficionado, it’s informative to read on Wikipedia that Thrash Metal (or Thrash) is: “An extreme subgenre of heavy metal music characterized by its overall aggression and often fast tempo.” But before you decide that this album is not for you, read on, or better still, check out the music yourself, because you might be pleasantly surprised by how your ears react to it. 
“Our mission is to continue that legacy of advanced music that was started by bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Return to Forever,” said Graves in an interview, “That was instilled in us by the masters. Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock—these guys sat with us and told us, ‘Look, man, you’ve got to carry this on.’” 
Stanley Clarke is indeed a huge fan of this band. Both Graves and drummer Mike Mitchell have played in Clarke’s band (Clarke saw a video of Mitchell playing on YouTube offered him a gig on the strength of it. Mitchell has been playing with Clarke since 2013). Bassist Max Gerl – who took up the instrument after watching a Led Zeppelin DVD – plays both acoustic and electric bass. Clarke was so impressed by Gerl’s playing that he wrote the liner notes to Gerl’s 2019 solo album Tblisi:  “I was impressed with his steadiness, along with his outstanding technique and dexterity on both instruments, which he uses to make next level music.” Guest saxophonist Kamasi Washington Wayne has worked with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and George Duke. 
This is a young band (they are all in their thirties) that understands and respects the jazz tradition, but at the same time, is on a mission to explore and expand jazz’s horizons. Although there are eleven tracks on the album (all composed by Graves), the album is quite short in length, just 33 minutes in total. The longest number lasts a little under four and a half minutes, with most songs around the three-minute mark. The opening number, ‘Sacred Spheres,’ is typical of many tunes on the album, with a hard, driving rock rhythm, propulsive piano, a tight bass line and Cook’s searing guitar – you can feel the power, energy and drive in the music.
‘The Life Carriers,’ another energetic number, reflects the influence of Stanley Clarke and reminds me of Clarke’s ‘All Hell Broke Loose,’ from the 1980 ‘Rock, Pebbles and Sand,’ album. Likewise, the uptempo ‘Super Universe,’ sounds like EST meets Van Halen and includes a piano figure that worms its way into your ear – it’s one of the best tracks on the album. ‘Sons of Creation’ (sounds like the name of a heavy metal band) is a menacing-sounding tune that also has influences of Clarke and features an Allan Holdsworth-like guitar solo from Cook.  ‘Red’ is one of the heaviest numbers on the album, with Mitchell sounding as if he has replaced his drum kit with a pile driver.
But this album is not all about heavy backbeats and driving rhythms. The mid-tempo ‘Paradise Trinity,’ has Kamasi Washington’s tenor playing the melody over a piano and bass vamp, while on gentle ballad ‘Seven,’ there is a call-and-response conversation between tenor sax and guitar, before Graves’ piano plays out the coda. ‘Fairytales’ is a lovely solo piano ballad, which highlights the sensitivity of Grave’s keyboard playing – it’s a million miles away from the high octane thrash-jazz numbers. The following two numbers, ‘Master Spirits’ and ‘Mansion Worlds’ are both frenetic tunes, with Cook playing a blistering solo on the former, and Mitchell’s pounding drums featuring on the latter.  The album concludes with ‘Eternal Paradise,’ the only track to feature Grave’s vocals (he has a fine voice). It sounds like a rock stadium anthem (the hook reminds me of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’) and is definitely more metal than jazz. 
I’ll be honest and admit that I wasn’t sure how thrash metal and jazz could combine into something worth listening to, but I am more than willing to eat a big slice of humble pie. This is exciting, energetic music played by a group of young master musicians. Many traditional jazz fans will not like this music, but I believe many others will. I also think that thrash-jazz could help attract a younger generation of music fans to jazz and that has to be good for the future of this music genre. Seven is quite simply, a new, fresh and exhilarating approach to jazz.
George Cole (Jazz Views)