Ámbar (Sony Masterworks)
Camila Meza & the Nectar Orchestra
Released May 31, 2019
JazzTimes Top 10 Albums of 2019
Ámbar, the fifth studio album from Meza, showcases the Chilean-born talent’s ever-evolving artistic sensibility, and finds her reaching new virtuosic and expressive heights as a singer, a stirring guitar soloist, an ambitious songwriter and a producer. Featuring the Nectar Orchestra, a hybrid ensemble with string quartet, with arrangements by bassist Noam Wiesenberg, and pianist/keyboardist Eden Ladin, drummer/percussionist Keita Ogawa, violinists Tomoko Omura and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit and cellist Brian Sanders, Ámbar is distinguished by its extraordinarily close attention to sonic detail. Steeped in metaphor, romance and complex emotion, Ámbar is Meza’s boldest artistic statement to date, a breakthrough, rooted in the incredible agility and interplay of Meza’s state-of-the-art jazz group.
“What’s amazing about this project,” says Meza, a native of Chile, “is the friendships I’ve developed with all of these musicians – I’ve been in New York for ten years now, so at this point you can really say that colleagues of yours are also really good friends. In Noam, I’m collaborating with an incredible musician but also one of my very best friends.”
The intimate, familial bond Meza speaks of is at the heart of the album’s title track “Ámbar” – it means “amber” in Spanish, a translation of her adored grandfather’s last name, Bernstein. Meza lost him just months after moving to New York, and, unable to return to Chile at the time, was forced to grieve on her own.
“I had to mourn by myself,” she recalls. “And I turned to music – it was the place I needed to go – and I wrote a song about connecting and reaching the spirit of a lost loved one. By singing, you can give a proper farewell, or even meet them whenever you want. We don’t necessarily die.”
Years passed and Meza encountered that word again, Ámbar, “a resin that becomes petrified,” she says.
“It’s a response of trees to injuries and wounds,” she continues. “They cover the wounds with this resin, and I thought of how my song had become like amber for that moment, how it petrifies, and the song also remains forever. It all revolved around the idea of healing, which is important individually but also as a society. We are in that moment where we need to see ourselves, look at our wounds and try to heal them.”
Following up Traces (2016), which won two Independent Music Awards for Best Adult Contemporary Album and Best Latin Song (“Para Volar”) and established Meza as a Rising Star in both guitar and female vocal categories in the esteemed DownBeat Critics Poll, Ámbar continues to reflect Meza’s immersion in jazz, American pop and Latin American music across eras and genres. On the album’s lead offering, “All Your Colors,” Meza begins calmly as keyboards and then strings surround her, easing into tempo with bright pizzicato figures. Wiesenberg’s arrangements have strings providing warm legato and enveloping harmony but also percussive rhythm. Elsewhere “Kallfu,” premiered on PopMatters.com, was inspired by a trip to Patagonia and the feeling of peace that Meza found there, reminding her of the “essential aspects of our lives that become clear when immersed in nature.” Meaning “blue” in Mapudungun, the language of southern Chile’s native Mapuche people, the track also pays homage to the Mapuche people, who continue to this day fighting for the protection of the land and their rights. The esteemed Will Layman said of “Kallfu” in his video premiere, INSERT WILL LAYMAN QUOTE HERE.
In addition to vibrant originals like “All Your Colors” and her take on “Milagre dos Peixes,” Meza also covers material by Elliott Smith, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Chico Buarque and Mexico’s Tomás Méndez, along with a pointedly topical rendition of “This Is Not America” by Pat Metheny and David Bowie. “This Is Not America,” which Metheny and Bowie contributed to the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman, is set to a slow backbeat that grows to a sweeping crescendo in the ending rock-tinged vamp, with the lyrics becoming a kind of “catharsis,” in Meza’s words. Her rendition was inspired in part by a personal connection to Metheny, who enlisted her talents to perform and act as musical director for his 2018 NEA Jazz Masters induction ceremony at The Kennedy Center.
“Milagre dos Peixes,” a breathtaking version of Milton Nascimento’s early 1970s composition. Culled from Meza’s Quartet repertoire and refashioned here for the Nectar Orchestra, Meza’s rendition of “Milagre dos Peixes,” or “Miracle of the Fishes,” brilliantly captures the passion, beauty and wailing sense of urgency found in Nascimento’s vocals. Originally making its debut via DownBeat Magazine, who said that Meza’s version, “maintains some of the original’s folk feel through the inclusion of the Nectar Orchestra’s pair of violins, even as some dark electricity creates tension during the song’s middle portion” (Dave Cantor), Meza’s version is both momentous and affecting, with enthralling solo contributions from pianist Eden Ladin and drummer/percussionist Keita Ogawa – listen here. “It felt very intuitive to bring ‘Milagre dos Peixes’ to this setting,” explains Meza of the track. “There’s something powerful and urgent about it. Nascimento was part of a movement in Brazil – they were writing songs with hidden political messages to avoid censorship from the dictatorship, but they still succeeded in boldly criticizing the regime. So there’s a kind of surrealism to the imagery in Fernando Brant’s lyrics, but with a devastating sense of reality. One of the messages I get from this song is that Nascimento is also singing about the imminent loss of the human connection to nature, and how a new generation is lured into worshipping the “new saints” that come in the form of TV, isolating them and diminishing their reverence for nature. The lyrics say, ‘they no longer talk about the fishes and the sea, they don’t see the flower blooming, the sun rising, and I’m just one more who talks about this pain, our pain.'”
1. Kallfu (Camila Meza) 04:49
2. Waltz No.1 (Elliot Smith) 04:23
3. Awaken (Camila Meza) 06:37
4. This Is Not America (David Bowie / Lyle Mays / Pat Metheny) 05:25
5. Olha Maria (Chico Buarque / Antônio Carlos Jobim / Vinícius de Moraes) 05:13
6. Atardecer (Camila Meza) 04:38
7. All Your Colors (Camila Meza) 04:50
8. Milagre dos Peixes (Fernando Brant / Milton Nascimento) 04:52
9. Interlude (Noam Wiesenberg) 00:52
10. Ámbar (Camila Meza) 05:00
11. Fall (Camila Meza) 05:14
12. Cucurrucucú Paloma 04:20
Camila Meza: vocals, guitar
The Nectar Orchestra
Noam Weisenberg: bass
Eden Ladin: piano/keyboards
Keita Ogawa: drums/percussion
Tomoko Omurao: violin
Fung Chern Hwei: violin
Benjamin von Gutzeist: viola
Brian Sanders: cello
Recorded June 12 – 13, 2017, at Brooklyn Recording, Brooklyn, NY
Producer: Camila Meza
Recording Engineer: Andy Taub, Steve Addabbo
Mastering and Mixing: Chris Allen
Design: Claire Morales
Photography: Rachel Thalia Fisher
Since arriving in New York from her native Santiago, Chile in 2009, Camila Meza has gradually emerged as a singular artist with boundless creative ambition. As a singer, she’s been a key member of trombonist Ryan Keberle’s pan-American ensemble Catharsis, while Cuban pianist Fabian Almazán has used her twinned guitar and vocal skills as the fulcrum between the string quartet and rhythm section on his breakthrough 2014 album Rhizome and 2017’s masterly Alcanza. In many ways Meza’s major-label debut, Ámbar, builds on both of those experiences.
A strikingly crafted project created in close collaboration with Israeli bassist Noam Wiesenberg, who wrote the arrangements, Ámbar features Meza’s rhythmically supple string-quartet-and-rhythm-section Nectar Orchestra. From the first track, “Kallfu,” one of six originals on the album, she casts a spell with an arresting amalgam of Latin American, jazz, and chamber-pop influences. Whether she’s getting Björkish on her song “Awaken” or making Pat Metheny and David Bowie’s “This Is Not America” sound like an anguished response to the evening news, each piece recalibrates the particular mix of elements. As a composer, she writes songs, like the surging title track, shaped around her vocal strengths. Singing in unison with her guitar, Meza mines a sublime streak of sadness on Elliott Smith’s “Waltz # 1.” She’s equally effective locating the emotional core of standards from the Brazilian songbook, putting her own stamp on “Olha Maria,” Chico Buarque’s epochal collaboration with Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. The arrangement of “Milagre dos Peixes” captures the unsettled energy of Milton Nascimento’s original recording. She closes the album with Tomás Méndez’s standard “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” crooning over an arrangement that owes more to Caetano Veloso’s interpretation than Lola Beltrán’s. While some of Nectar Orchestra’s ideas bring to mind Esperanza Spalding’s Chamber Music Society, it’s a hybrid that plays to Meza’s singular strengths.
Andrew Gilbert (JazzTimes)