Artistry Music ART7066

Cameron Graves (piano, vocals); Max Gerl (bass); Mike Mitchell (drums); Colin Cook (guitar). Kamasi Washington (tenor saxophone on two tracks)
Recorded Sphere Studios, Tubby Tunes Studio and The Village Studios, Los Angeles, CA 8-18 February 2018 and 18 December 2018 – 1 February 2019

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.