Cameron Graves, the pianist for Kamasi Washington and a founding member of the West Coast Get Down collective, makes his own searing mark with an enrapturing and assured solo album.
The collective known as the West Coast Get Down may have made its emphatic mark on the jazz world in 2015, but the bandmates have been honing their sound and approach for nearly two decades together in Los Angeles. They’ve put in their Gladwellian 10,000 hours, just not in New York or at Berklee.
If tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington—with his sprawling, uncompromising record The Epic—was the subject of the most column inches in 2015, this may be the year for some of his long-time collaborators like Cameron Graves, a beguiling pianist who just released Planetary Prince, his rousing debut as a bandleader. Fellow WCGD musicians Ryan Porter (trombone), Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner (bass), drummer Ronald Bruner, Jr., and Kamasi Washington (as a sideman) return for this set, with the addition of trumpeter Philip Dizack and Hadrien Feraud, another bassist, both of whom are immersed in the L.A. jazz scene.
It’s at once an addendum to The Epic and an extension. It was recorded during an eleven-hour session, and at 80 minutes it has the feel of a concept album, channeling Graves’ interest in astrology and The Urantia Book, the 2,000-page spiritual/science text of unknown provenance that served as inspiration for outré composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-day opera “Licht.” (Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia also carried around copies in their rucksacks.)
The authorship of the music, though, is all Graves, who, it’s been reported, enjoys death metal and Chopin, hip-hop and prog rock, and has played with Jada Pinkett-Smith’s band Wicked Wisdom and pioneering fusion bassist Stanley Clarke. The eight tracks on the album reveal Graves’ influences, which seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. There are whiffs of McCoy Tyner, especially from his early- mid-’70s groups, Abdullah Ibrahim, and somehow Joe Sample, yet he doesn’t particularly sound like any of them.
As a youngster, Graves studied classical piano, which is apparent from the gorgeous opening bars of the first piece, “Satania Our Solar System,” before it quickly transitions into an uptempo fusion-esque romp with a charging back beat. In the subsequent title track, Graves, who plays acoustic throughout the set, bursts out in percussive form—he’s often thunderingly percussive, as in “The Lucifer Rebellion” later—and follows with a busy, jabbing solo. Washington, with his singular, bravura tone, soon joins and verges on obfuscating the material, but stays just on the right side of his ecstatic-expressionism. “Andromeda” shifts to a quieter side, or as quiet as the WCGD can get. Feraud, a Parisian, recalls Jaco Pastorius on an inspired electric bass solo, and Ronald Bruner—who also shimmers on “El Diablo”—coerces all sorts of vibrant colors out of just his cymbals. The theme, especially when played by the horns, has a dream-like touch, as if penned by Wayne Shorter.
On “Isle of Love,” the leader opens with vigor, before Kamasi returns for another towering solo. Graves takes us out softly and by himself, which is exactly how “Adam & Eve” begins. Kamasi lets loose one more time, but the three horns that finish the tune—and Porter’s trombone adds lovely texture here, as it did on The Epic—underscores the unselfishness that marks the work of the WCGD. “The End of Corporatism,” an uptempo piece, further captures the Collective’s (and Graves’) drive and spirit, one that is enraptured, assured, grandiose in moments, but never self-aggrandizing. Planetary Prince might not shift the tectonic plates the way The Epic did, but Graves, while earthly-bound, has his gaze set upward.