Camila Meza, from Santiago, Chile, started as a bit of a phenomenon at home. She was a musical standout in school and began gigging as a young woman, singing and playing guitar. If she started as a classic rock and singer-songwriter fan, then it didn’t take her long to begin singing standards like Ella Fitzgerald and playing a hollow-bodied guitar like Wes Montgomery.
Of course that’s what young artists do. But, if they’re not careful, they keep doing it for way too long: copying, learning, living in the shadows of their elders. Meza, however, had other plans. She left home at 23 for New York and the New School in 2009, studied with Vic Juris and Steve Cardenas among others, and started playing with everyone all over town, including a recent stint with Ryan Keberle’s band Catharsis, with which she has recorded two excellent albums.
Traces is her third outing as a leader but her first in New York. The trio behind her (Shai Maestro on keys, Matt Penman on bass, and Kendrick Scott’s drums) is fleet and fantastic, and she supplements it with some harmony vocal from Sachal Vasandani, as well as percussion and cello. But at its core, this is a quartet record that puts Meza out front as a singer, a songwriter, and a guitarist — with both strong and appealing ideas in each role.
The first three songs out of the chute are all Meza originals, and they arrive in a flurry of sparkling melody and rhythmic appeal. Her band is not gimmicky or “smooth” — that is to say, this is not commercially calculated “jazz”. But the ensemble has the sparkle and snap of the bands of Meza’s early hero, Pat Metheny, making this exceptionally accessible and appealing modern jazz despite coming from a small label and lacking any of this season’s signals of commercial appeal: hip hop credentials, connections to soul music, gritty backbeats.
The opener, “Para Volar”, features a hooky four-note motif that rides above a bubbling stream of Latin groove. The band is precise and acoustic, negotiating melody and harmony with ease. Mesa’s guitar tone is mostly clean and bright, and she pairs it with her voice here like they were blue sky and sunshine: cool and bright at once. “Away” adds cello and sounds a bit more like a kind of chamber pop ballad, but the music picks up a percolating Latin jazz float a the midpoint, with electric piano candy underpinning the vocals. The third song, the title track, adds a new rhythmic feel: a beguiling snap of funk relieved by a more complex jazz groove build on precise written bass lines and complex harmony.
As a songwriter, then, Camila Meza is not going to be pinned down. She writes lyrics in Spanish and English, and she writes music across genres. It sounds of a whole, however, because her two voices — as a singer and as a guitarist — are strong.
Vocally, Meza is deft and not obviously brilliant but grows on your ear: modest of tone but fleet in phrasing. If you’re looking for a bag in which to place her, you’ll be stymied. Her voice is plainspoken and clear, arguably akin to recent young jazz singers who sound less like a classic “jazz” singer such as Becca Stevens. That is to say, Meza is not like the talented but oh-so-throwback-sounding Cecile McLorin Savant, whose updating of Sarah Vaughan is big at Jazz at Lincoln Center but sounds unaffected by the last 50 years of jazz singing. Her instrument, however, is less affected than that of Gretchen Parlato, less soul-driven than Somi, and less avant-pop than Cassandra Wilson. Meza manages to suggest her connection to Ella and Joni Mitchell at the same time while being tied to singing from other cultures too. The current singer she reminds me of most may be Luciana Souza, from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
I particularly like the vocal performance on the Meza original, “Mar Elastico”, where Meza moves quietly in her lower and middle registers with intimacy, a bit breathy but still clear as a bell, pulling a variety of colors from the melody that are beautifully complimented by an atmospheric arrangement that particularly features Scott’s drums.
Though she is not mainly an interpreter of classic material, I love that the one Broadway “standard” Meza has chosen for this band is “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It is a song about being captive, sung by the demon barber’s daughter in what is often an underwhelming moment in most Todd productions. Meza’s version may be the fist ever to actually have the momentum and urgency to suggest flight and escape. She sets it up with propulsive guitar lick, but the arrangement then blossoms into a skipping jazz waltz. The singer’s own guitar improvisation on “Greenfinch” takes off in lyrical beauty but really flies because Meza is a profoundly swinging player whose rhythm flutters and jumps against her band’s polyrhythmic groove. The song makes you believe in liberation — in part from the overstudied way that Sondheim songs usually come off in the hands of jazz musicians.
The other spectacular cover here is Meza’s closing version of “Little Person”, which is a tune from the intriguing Charlie Kaufman movie Synechdote, NY, written by Jon Brion. The original was a subtle stride piano feeling, and Meza keeps things simple here, accompanying herself on guitar only, offering up something as tender and heartfelt as jazz has to offer these days.
There are plenty of treats on Traces, but the best news is that so many of the songs are just as beautiful as they are complex, just as appealing as they are urgent. Little moments — such as the unison scatting with acoustic piano in the middle of Meza’s original “Mangata” — pop out as gleaming gems on the beach of her music. It doesn’t hurt that the song just has a great melody and hook, all while still clearly being some kind of “jazz”.
Camila Meza is just the latest evidence that this music — stereotypically thought of in today’s culture as fussy, niche, over-elite, cold, old — is capable of crossing every barrier. There’s an audience for this kind of beauty, melody, invention, flight. Find Camila Meza, please, folks.