Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince (2017)

Graves Planetary Prince

Despite a slight surge in popularity, modern jazz seems to have a poor reputation. Too often, it’s criticized for a glossy sound, sloppy production and a lack of originality. Looking at a label like Blue Note – once the gold standard for the genre – it’s obvious why these critiques exist. The current lineup consists of mostly crooners evoking a Sinatra/Rat Pack vibe, musicians re-interpreting old standards and plenty of nu-jazz. 70 years into their existence, it’s not surprising to hear Blue Note favor traditionalism over experimentation. But far too many still look to them for as industry leaders. In the meantime, a handful of up-and-coming labels have managed to snag a little bit of the spotlight but none more rapidly or obviously than Brainfeeder.

After a number of pop and hip-hop collaborations, Brainfeeder has slowly worked their way into mainstream popularity. Tracks with Herbie Hancock, Kendrick Lamar and even Kenny Loggins have attracted a wide audience – with Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat all nabbing some mainstream appeal. That being said, the cast of characters on the label is actually remarkably eccentric, as IDM, hip-hop and spiritual jazz are among the encompassing genres. The standouts steal the show but plenty of talented musicians innovating on Brainfeeder. 

Somewhere in the diverse mix lies Cameron Graves. A pianist, Graves is a studio musician who’s helped out on a number of Brainfeeder projects – like The Epic and Golden Age of Apocalypse. He’s never quite been the center of attention but Planetary Prince is Graves’ first shot. His debut as a bandleader, it features essentially the same lineup as The Epic. However, it maintains a slightly different feel, featuring a unique personality and (luckily) a much shorter runtime. It’s pretty impressive to hear the same band produce something almost entirely different. 

From the get-go, everything on Planetary Prince feels incredibly heavy. Drummer Ronald Brunner Jr is a huge part of this – as he absolutely dominates the set with his powerful style. He sits thouroughly forward in the mix, eating up space with kicks, tom slams and a number of rattling cymbal hits. It’s a bit of an unusual flair for jazz, as his rapid fire bass kicks sound more like they were made for the heaviness of death metal. However, the clunky approach begins to improve throughout the album. The heaviness adds some “oomf” to the album that so many critics feel is missing in modern jazz. Criticize Brunner’s approach if you will but it’s notably different than the critically maligned drum machines of nu-jazz. 

With his slamming technique, Brunner in some ways reminds listeners there’s power and significance behind this piece of music. It’s something certainly more fitting for an intense experience than easy listening. Maybe Brunner takes things a bit too far in the opposite direction but hearing cathartic, modern jazz drumming is a welcome change. Listening to the droning, seething “El Diablo” is a beautiful experience, as Brunner’s riffs are sure to induce head-banging and swaying. He has some absolutely absurd soloing and transforms a repetitive cut into something meditative and remarkable.

Graves himself is a huge standout too. On earlier tracks, his piano riffs are oddly similar to spiritual jazz pianists like McCoy Tyner or even Andrew Hill, bouncing around lightheartedly. He’ll shift from twinkling arpeggios to pounding chords just as quickly and effortlessly. On “End of Corporatism”, he drones on in minimalist ECM fashion, only changing his riffs when it’s absolutely necessary. And on moments of “Adam & Eve” and “Andromeda”, he sounds more classical than anything else. The variety of styles Graves manages to cover is impressive to say the least and hearing the other musicians work around his compositions is fascinating.

What makes Planetary Prince so satisfying overall is its free-flowing approach. The entire album feels like a casual jam session – with different band members trading off pretty easily. Though some songs feel more organized and carefully composed, there’s an element of improvisation that keeps the album organic, entertaining and in the moment. Unlike many acclaimed modern jazz groups drawing off minimalism influencers, Planetary Prince doesn’t blend together into one giant, slowly developing track. Songs flow perfectly from one to another but they’re distinct enough to feel fresh and original. All in all, Planetary Prince is a fantastic debut and one that proves jazz has originality and fresh, promising faces, even into the 21st century. 


Author: Charlie

Charlie Wooley is an aspiring journalist and founder of The Tenth Man Blog. An avid sports fan and music nerd, he’s written for publications such as Pop Gates, Every Deja Vu and Tremr. A local San Diegan, you can catch him eating fish tacos or cruising through Balboa.

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