You know Kamasi Washington? Of course you do—if you were even partially conscious during 2015 you would have been witness to the music world blowing their metaphorical load over his debut album The Epic (deservedly, I might add). And fuck, was it a great album—perhaps a little long at three discs’ worth of content, but nonetheless one of the best albums of the year, and proof that jazz is alive and well in the music world.
What I looked forward to most from the aftermath of The Epic, though, was to see what Kamasi and his group would do next. There were stirrings throughout the interwebs, rumors that the lineup on The Epic would all be releasing solo albums in the next few years. So I waited—I hunkered down and kept my radar pointing towards Pitchfork for that time to come, and, as it happens, 2017 is the year for all of this to start going down. First up was Miles Mosley’s album Uprising—a release that, while not jazz (more soul music than anything), was nonetheless a solid try. But I wanted something more, you know, jazzy. I’m not against well-done soul, but it’s so rare to have that jazz itch scratched for me with contemporary artists. Luckily enough, pianist Cameron Graves announced his debut as well, Planetary Prince—an album that doesn’t disappoint, and instead redefines what can be done with jazz today, blending it with cosmic consciousness from the spiritual text The Urantia Book. Have you ever seen a picture of a nebula before, or a celestial being so massive and beautiful you were at a loss for words? Planetary Prince is the aural equivalent of that—by listening you’re taking a journey through space and noticing the majestic beauty of the universe as you zip by.
Let’s just get this out of the way, though: this isn’t a sequel to The Epic. Not even close. Kamasi may be on this album’s personnel, but it’s something very, very different—another facet of spiritual jazz entirely. Graves’s piano work seems to lend itself to a melange of influences—jazz fusion-ish phrasing, lots of open and light Keith Jarrett-style chords, even some flairs towards classical music—but it’s all played with more of a bebop or hard bop mindset than anything. At the same time, though, it’s spacey and gorgeous, full of twists and turns and an insane sense of rhythm. Even when Graves isn’t the center of attention (such as in Kamasi’s solo in “Adam & Eve”, you can still hear him commanding the rhythm section with his punchy chords. Sometimes it can sound a wee bit out of place, like the beginning of “Satania Our Solar System”, where it feels a little off-beat, but that anxiety is quickly taken away as the track continues.
If the sheer virtuosic piano work isn’t enough for you, the lineup backing Graves on Planetary Prince will more than make up for that. Besides the obvious talent of Kamasi Washington on tenor, there’s also Thundercat and Hadrien Faraud rocking the bass (seriously, fucking Thundercat!), Thundercat’s brother Ronald Bruner Jr. handling percussion, Philip Dizack on trumpet, and Ryan Porter on trombone (who was also on The Epic with Thundercat and Graves). What blew me away was the way these instruments are used—this isn’t like a bebop album where all the instruments get to take their solos all in the same song—everything’s arranged impeccably, making every single note played crucial to the song’s structure. (Just listen to the horns on “El Diablo” if you don’t believe me—it’s like the jazz standard “Caravan” turned up to 11.)
Here’s the deal: if you like jazz, and you liked The Epic, but are open to what a virtuosic, spiritually conscious jazz pianist is capable of, do yourself a favor and listen to Planetary Prince. Like I said, it isn’t similar to The Epic enough to make comparisons—it’s its own beast—but what you give up from not expecting The Epic you gain in a truly singular listening experience.