Cameron Graves

Episode 73 of the Burning Ambulance podcast features an interview with pianist Cameron Graves.

I have a single subject we’re going to be exploring through all ten episodes that I’m going to be presenting this season, and that subject is fusion. Fusion means much more, I think, than just the music that most people probably think of when they hear the word. Of course, it immediately brings to mind bands from the 1970s like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Weather Report: groups that were formed by ex-members of Miles Davis’s band, playing extremely complex compositions that blurred the lines between progressive rock and jazz, while still leaving room for extended improvisation. But if you think of fusion as a process rather than a style, the discussion gets a lot more interesting. Because then you can pull in the music being made by Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Santana, etc., all of which gets filed under just plain rock. And you can talk about the music Latin artists like Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, and the Fania All Stars were making at the same time. Or the really adventurous funk and R&B that was being made by Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament, Funkadelic, the Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Ohio Players, Slave, which then leads you to jazz-funk names like George Duke, Billy Cobham, the Crusaders, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Eddie Henderson, and of course Mwandishi and the Headhunters. This is how I prefer to think about fusion. It’s not just a specific, narrow slice of music, it’s the sound of walls being knocked down across the landscape.

So that’s the kind of philosophical starting point for all the interviews I’m doing this season, and that’s what makes Cameron Graves such a perfect person to talk to. Because he’s a guy who crosses all sorts of musical boundaries. He’s had a lot of classical music training, as I learned during this conversation, he spent several years studying Indian music, and obviously he’s got a deep jazz background starting out as a member of the Young Jazz Giants with Kamasi Washington and the Bruner brothers, Stephen aka Thundercat on bass and his brother Ronald on drums, which evolved into the West Coast Get Down and all the albums that they’ve made over the last half dozen years or so. But Cameron’s also a lifelong metalhead — in fact, he played keyboards and guitar in Wicked Wisdom, the nu-metal band fronted by Jada Pinkett Smith in the early 2000s. So he’s not only toured the world with Kamasi Washington and with Stanley Clarke, because he’s a member of Clarke’s band, too — he also played Ozzfest.

And here’s an interesting connection: the drummer for Wicked Wisdom was Philip “Fish” Fisher, the drummer for Fishbone. And when you talk about fusion as the kind of big-tent/umbrella sort of conceptual thing that I’m talking about, you have to include them in there. They mixed funk and hard rock and punk and metal and ska and reggae and jazz into one big swirl, particularly on their most ambitious album, 1991’s The Reality of My Surroundings. There’s all kinds of music on there, from Bad Brains-style hardcore to Last Poets-style abstract jazz poetry. And of course they were the best live band on the planet from the mid ’80s to the early ’90s.

Fishbone were never as big as they deserved to be, but they were absolute heroes in L.A., and they were a huge inspiration to all kinds of open-minded musicians who came up in their wake. Last year, I interviewed Terrace Martin, who’s an alto saxophonist affiliated with the West Coast Get Down but is also a hip-hop producer who’s worked with Snoop Dogg for years — in fact, he put together a live band for Snoop in about 2010 that included Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Ryan Porter, who’s been on this podcast before, and other people from their circle as well. Anyway, when I talked to Martin, he expressed a lot of love for Fishbone. And he’s now a member of Herbie Hancock’s band, in addition to being part of R+R=NOW, a group that also includes Robert Glasper and Christian Scott. And Thundercat and his brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., were both members of Suicidal Tendencies, playing straight-up punk and thrash, for years. There are so many connections between jazz and funk and metal, when you look for them, and bands that combine them in various really fascinating ways. It’s all fusion, in the broad sense.

Another thing that’s really interesting, to me anyway, is that there are so many direct connections between the West Coast Get Down guys and the Seventies fusion artists. Like I said, Cameron Graves is in Stanley Clarke’s band. Terrace Martin is in Herbie Hancock’s band. Ronald Bruner Jr. played with George Duke before Duke died. Thundercat covered a George Duke song on one of his albums, and had Steve Arrington from Slave on his most recent record. It really is like they’re the next generation of fusion. And we talk about all this and a lot more in the interview you’re about to hear. This was a really fun conversation that went in some very interesting directions, and I hope you enjoy listening to it.

Music in this episode:

Cameron Graves, “Planetary Prince” (from Planetary Prince)

Cameron Graves, “The Life Carriers” (from Seven)

Cameron Graves, “Red” (from Live From the Seven Spheres)