Camila Meza sings and plays the guitar with sonorous skill and imagination that jumps into your ears and heart. Like bassist Esperanza Spalding and pianist Eliane Elias, Meza is a genuinely fine jazz instrumentalist who happens to have a lovely vocal instrument. It’s a phenomenon with history too. Nat Cole was an influential jazz pianist before his crooning nabbed him a television show. Sarah Vaughan played the piano in Earl Hines’s band for a time. Given how the market functions, these careers tend to move toward mainly singing.
Meza’s latest recording, Ambar, was recorded independently but picked up by Sony. Does that big record company see a star in the making? Even Esperanza Spalding is still recording for Concord, a jazz label, so is Ambar a true crossover record? Is Meza the next Diana Krall or Norah Jones?
But Ambar, if anything, is a recording that stands firmly as an artistic statement rather than a stretch for pop stardom. Not that Meza’s voice is not lovely and beautifully recorded, and not that her material—half of which she wrote—is not engagingly melodic. But this is an ambitious recording that blends Meza’s “jazz” quartet with a string quartet (presumably this is the Nectar Orchestra) playing complex arrangements that interact with the band in a manner that is vastly more than some string sweetening. Indeed, there is a decent argument that Ambar sounds a bit less like a reach for popular appeal that Traces, Meza’s superb 2016 recording.
The decision to use strings was one that Meza developed over a series of gigs in New York using this format. Here, she has collaborated with bassist Noam Weisenberg, who is credited with the inventive string arrangements that largely ignite Ambar. For example, Meza’s wonderful tune “All Your Colors” deploys the string quartet both as a tip-toeing rainfall of plucked strings and as a swelling single organism that can push the melody toward revelation. The jazz group is also arranging intriguingly, with pianist Eden Ladin playing a celesta (a bell-like keyboard), for example. But it is the string arrangement that establishes the moodiness of the first verse (“I’ll be careful with the colors that I choose to paint the roads inside my mind”), the playfulness of the second (“Every line leads to another / When you’re drawing life in front of someone else”), and the emotional swoon of the song’s climax (“There was nothing separating me from you”). The strings are never too heavy or bombastic here. They tickle and color the edges, they sometimes swell into the foreground, but they never swamp Meza’s delicate, lyrical singing.
On “Kalifu”, another Meza original, the strings are complicit with bass and drums (Keita Ogowa) in setting up a polyrhythmic groove that suggests the flow of water. Violins, viola, and cello work on a thrilling ostinato pattern bowing rhythmically back and forth as the jazz group grooves hard. Meza’s guitar interlocks with this and her voice — often overdubbed into harmonies — surfs over it all. When it is time for the song to go still in a pool of reflective water, the strings provide the shimmer, and when the waterfall of rhythm starts again, Meza’s guitar can dive in and be pushed.
The Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays song “This Is Not America” (with lyrics by David Bowie for the film The Falcon and the Snowman) is a slow ballad, and the band handles the first verse and chorus without strings. They are missed, but that makes it more dramatic as they enter on verse two, combining bowed and pizzicato playing, gradually adding layers and tension to the performance. The out chorus is Meza’s guitar, in a rare, overdriven mode, cutting through increasingly thick and aggressive strings, pushing at the edges of pleasant. And powerful.
The other songs on Ambar not composed by Meza are telling and well-chosen. “Waltz #1” from Elliot Smith is languid and melancholy, allowing Meza to milk the phrase “I wish I’d never seen your face” above the string quartet’s interesting, circling arrangement. Meza scats in unison with her guitar improvisation at the end, also weaving through the string part. The Jobim collaboration with Vinicius de Moraes, “Ohla Maria”, is also a gentle waltz featuring Meza’s controlled vocal performance, caressing the tender melody. Hewing fairly close to the version of Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer is the octet’s interpretation of “Milage dos Peixes” by Milton Nascimento, a tune infused with a half dozen hooks—in the melody, the way the words repeat, small guitar figures, descending harmonic figures. It allows Meza to show off how good she sounds simply accompanying herself on guitar in some spots, as well as giving Ladin room to improvise on Wurlitzer electric piano in a sparkling way. The strings are less impactful here, perhaps, because the bones of the song are so sturdy.
The songs on Ambar are sung in English, Spanish, and Portuguese, which makes sense for a New York-based musician from Santiago, Chile whose art has been significantly shaped by Brazilian music. Meza writes tunes in two languages. She employs the harmonic language of jazz, using a melodic language that owes as much to Stephen Sondheim as it does to Caetano Veloso or Pat Metheny. Also, Meza embodies a sensibility that crosses from improvised art music to pop songs to the not-yet-defined space of peers such as Gretchen Parlato, Becca Stevens, and Emma Frank. An original song like “Awaken” is obscure enough to forego any shot at the crossover success of Norah Jones. Yet, it also doesn’t conform to any “jazz” rules of play, despite a section in which Meza’s guitar trades swinging phrases with Ladin’s very Chick Corea-esque synthesizer.
That is not a criticism, and Meza comes by this no-man’s-land middle ground quite naturally. She is a critical member of Catharsis, the similarly undefinable band led by trombonist Ryan Keberle that is making music that has no clear market other than jazz fans with an open mind and a willingness to follow modern music into open spaces. Mesa’s project, however, with its home on Sony Masterworks and its clearer focus on a lead vocalist, probably invites greater scrutiny around its potential to find a wider audience. And, on that front, it’s hard to say if Ambar is going to project Meza into commercial success. A tune like “Atardecer” has moments in which it soars up into melodic glory. After a somewhat conventional introduction with the strings, it hits a hip and skipping bass and drum groove. Ladin’s Rhodes piano sits in a sweet space too, particularly as it accompanies Meza’s guitar/vocal improvisation. By its conclusion, the track has traveled much of the territory of the album as a whole, proving Meza’s dazzle, but also suggesting why she won’t be the next Spalding or Jones.
Then again, maybe a major label like Sony knows well enough that Norah Jones wouldn’t become “Norah Jones” in 2019 (in fact, Norah Jones isn’t “Norah Jones” these days, at least in record sales).
As an artist, as an ambitious woman with a battery of musical skills (guitar, composing, singing, collaborating), Camila Meza is soaring as smoothly and stratospherically as any of her melodies. It is, perhaps, not without meaning that she concludes Ambar with “Cucurrucucu Paloma”, the ubiquitous Mexican song that has appeared in so many films—sung by Harry Belafonte, Caetano Veloso, Rosemary Clooney, Joan Baez, and many others. She plays it as plainly as possible: just her voice and her acoustic guitar. It is smashing, subtle, tender.
Here I am, Meza can fairly say. I can cut to the bone simply just as well as I can construct a complex structure. She chooses to do both and to defy pigeonholes. I imagine that Meza will never have it any other way.