Camila Meza: Following what the music has to say

Friedrich Kunzmann By

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I’ve always followed what the music tells me...The story of the song, lyrically and musically, is the main focus, so I try to arrange in a way that the instrumentation serves the song
Since the success of her 2016 effort Traces, Chilean-raised and New York-based guitarist Camila Meza has been incresingly gaining more recognition in today's jazz-guitar demographics. In addition to the all-star cast comprised of the likes of Shai Maestro, Matt Penman and Kendrick Scott, it is also the sense of sophistication and singularity in composition that defined her last record and made it her most balanced outing to date. In light of the ongoing Pannonica-project, brought to life and led by Austrian double-bassist Gina Schwarz, Meza was invited to join the band for a most colorful evening filled with a diverse pallet of sounds and styles at the Porgy & Bess in Vienna, presenting original compositions by both.

In our interview, conducted in a bar in downtown Vienna the following evening, Meza pointed out how the collaboration came about and which challenges it posed.

Camila Meza: Gina is doing this project (The Pannonica-Project) once a month throughout the year. In addition to a fixed cast of musicians she invites a special guest; the focus is on women instrumentalists from anywhere around the world and I believe she chooses a different instrument every month.

All About Jazz: Gina goes all over the place in her compositions. She introduces a very experimental and atonal side to her compositions. Was it hard to get into that for you or are you often confronted with this style of jazz?

CM: Yeah, We covered such a big scope of music yesterday, it was fun that way! And yes, I would say that I am confronted with all types of jazz but only rarely go into free-improv, which I actually dig! But I have to be in the right situation to feel comfortable and free with it. That seems hypocritical, no? I need to feel free to play freely...(she laughs)

She most certainly had to have felt comfortable on the day of the concert. The entire group displayed great chemistry, culminating to tight and enticing grooves throughout and Meza shone on her own compositions as well as on the jazz-fusion and free-jazz tinged explorations by Gina Schwarz. Although placed at the center of the stage, Meza did not so much take the spotlight in every song as lend her knowledge and skillset to the general sound in democratic fashion. This notion of restraint was even more noticeable here than on her already reserved role on Traces. Most likely due to the slightly enhanced instrumentation: In addition to the quartet, comprised of herself, Gina Schwarz on bass, Judith Schwarz on drums and Philipp Nykrin on the piano, the band also featured sax/bass-clarinet, trumpet/Flugelhorn, Violin and Cello—forcing Meza to rearrange her pieces:

CM: Rearranging my songs was really fun! But I had to do it in a really short time due to my busy schedule just before this concert. So I basically only had a day and a half to do the rearranging on the computer.

Hard to imagine such little time was spent on the rearranging. Opening with the fresh breeze that is "Para Volar," which coincidentally is also the opener of Traces, the band demonstrated new rhythmical variations on a driving 6/8 beat, wonderfully ornamented by smoothly harmonizing strings and brass. "Greenfinch and Linnet Bird," "Away" as well as the melancholically haunting "Amazon Farewell" also made it into the set, each immersed in new light by means of reinterpretation, the latter profiting from the enhanced arrangement the most. While the studio version of "Amazon Farewell" already finds a cello widening the sound carpet, the further addition of Flugelhorn, bass-clarinet and violin made the composition bloom with unhinged solos by all involved.

In combination with the monthly Pannonica-Project concerts the special guests furthermore hold workshops at the ipop Jazz University in Vienna, a successful collaboration between the University and the Porgy & Bess. Meza had just returned from holding said workshop when we met for the interview.

AAJ: Do you often do workshops and do you enjoy doing them?

CM: Yes I do, and I've been increasingly doing more and more. The first one I held was at Stanford University and I was really nervous at the thought of having to teach so many people at once. While doing it though I realized it comes really naturally to me. I've been having so much fun holding workshops ever since and have more and more opportunities to do them as well. For example I've been invited to go to Singapore in March to do a workshop as well (for a second time).

AAJ: Growing up in a very musical family in Chile, you were exposed to classical music by your parents and to 70's fusion (Scofield and Metheny to name a few) by your siblings, leaving the question: What South American artists influenced your musical taste at an earlier stage in your career?

CM: First of all, I have always been very open to all kinds of music. I don't prefer any specific genre. So there are so many artists that have had an impact on my musical upbringing. The Brazillian classics, anything from Elis Regina to Milton Nascimento, were always omnipresent and of course the all-time classic Antonio Carlos Jobim, whom I've covered a couple of times in the past. When it comes to guitarists I'd say that Tonhinho Horta has had great influence on my early upbringing as well. Just today in the workshop I also talked about Mercedes Sosa, who was one of the biggest voices in Latin America. In Chile, there are these two artists that took the folklore to the next level: Victor Jara (who I also have covered a bunch) and Violetta Parra.

AAJ:In 2009, at the age of 23, you decided to move to New York and continue your jazz education in the Big Apple. What made you want to move to New York at that point in your life? What was your main motivation?

CM: At 21, 22, I was already looking for other things to do, outside of the given parameters. Chile was an amazing experience, developing there as a musician. But it's a small scene and therefore knows its limits. Before going to New York I first applied for a cruise ship, which I was on for 5 months. Then I decided to go to New York for a month, only to check it out, short-term. I had no intention of moving there, but that one month revealed itself so revelatory it felt like a big shift in my life. There was a sense of constant motivation by being confronted with so many new things, especially musically of course. Everyone there is so much at the top of their game, I felt I just wanted to practice every day and become better. Not really in a competitive way but the scene just makes you want to bring the best version of yourself out. If there is a sense of competition it surely isn't one against the other but a competition with oneself. So I went back to Chile and immediately applied for the New School and fortunately ended up getting a scholarship. I moved to New York five months later and that's that!

AAJ: How was it arriving in New York in the very beginning? Had you already established connections or were you pretty much on your own?

CM: I had like zero connections! The only contact I had was the friend with whom I'd stayed for that month, who was a friend of a friend of my sisters. So a really far connection that actually ended up being one of the most valuable ones I made. I stayed with him for about a semester and in retrospective I believe I'd have been lost without him. He and another Chilean (drummer) were the only friends I had in the beginning and the drummer and I, we basically shared our struggle of being new in town. Then naturally in the course of time I met hundreds of new people, especially through school, who have become dear friends and/or musical acquaintances as well.

AAJ: You studied under some of the greatest teachers and players, such as Peter Bernstein. Which one would you say brought you forward the most?

CM: That's a hard question, because everybody brings very different things to your attention...but there's one, who is actually not a guitar but a pianist: Sam Yahel. I studied under him for the longest time and I feel I made my biggest leap in my musical development when studying with him. He is an amazing teacher as well as musician. He really made me dig deeper into my music, psychologically as well as musically.

AAJ: You then recorded your first set of songs with Aaron Goldberg on piano, leading to your first New York recording, "Prisma." How did that collaboration come about?

CM: I had met Aaron through another friend after a concert. Since he speaks Spanish quite well we talked for a bit and shortly after I had a little gig at 'The bar Next Door' and sent Aaron a message beforehand, asking him if he would be up to joining me on stage. So he showed up and we played a little trio set and had a lot of fun. Right after he asked me if I'd planned on recording any time soon for he'd like to help. He even asked who I'd want to record with. So I ended up having these amazing musicians coming in for my sessions, such as Clarence Penn, John Ellis and the Chilean collaborator who I'd been working with before, Pablo Menares. It was an incredible experience!

AAJ: Are you very aware of all your contemporaries, such as Gilad Hekselman, Matthew Stevens, Lage Lund or Mike Moreno, to name a few? Do you listen to their music and draw influence from them?

CM: Definitely! All of those names I actually knew even before I moved to New York and seeing how they are still younger in the scene they are also more accessible, so when I'd go out in the evening you'd actually meet with these guitarists. I think one of the first concerts I went to see after moving to New York was the Ari Hoenig Smalls Session, featuring Gilad. I actually asked for a lesson from him that evening (she laughs) and now we are friends; we hang out together. All of those you mentioned I know by now and we're either acquaintances or friends. It's great.

AAJ: You also bring a special synergy of musical aspects to the table, as compared to many other guitarists. There's a songwriter aspect to your music, you sing, you play guitar and you write music and lyrics, often seeing guitar comping falling to the background. Do you see yourself as a pure jazz-guitarist? Is it your main focus in your writing or do you go about it more democratically?

CM: I've always followed what the music tells me, even if that means that on a certain tune I won't solo but just focus on the band's interaction. The story of the song, lyrically and musically, is the main focus, so I try to arrange in a way that the instrumentation serves the song. I go with what the music needs more than what I want to showcase. You know I've experienced some criticism concerning that fact, asking me why I don't solo more, play a more virtuoso part but often I just feel that the music doesn't need that. The big picture is the entire musical entity and then comes the rest and at some points my ego (haha). I feel some people have a hard time at understanding that construct when approaching my music. Sometimes I'll play a really simple laid back folk song and people would never believe I'm able to do a bit more on guitar then the "simple strumming."

AAJ: I find your approach to composition and music in general to be very appealing and most striking on your latest album Traces. And I don't seem to be the only one either. The album was well received in the media. Did you feel that Traces was a big step?

CM: Yes, definitely. People seem to really be starting to appreciate what I do and this record has opened some new doors, doors to more gigs all over the place, even Japan for the first time and three more following right after.

AAJ: What drove your inspiration while writing the album?

CM: During the conception of the record I was going through a lot of change in my life. On a personal level, on an academic level, on a philosophical level; everything was shifting quite a bit to be honest. By creating these songs I was, in a way, liberating myself from worries, limitations I had inflicted upon myself. So I decided I really needed to do what felt good. In general, when I'm writing, I feel I'm writing from the positive side of my everyday struggle. I point solutions out to myself and motivate myself.

AAJ: Let's get to your next project, your upcoming album entitled "Ambar." In the spring of last year you'd started a successful kickstarter campaign, seeking to help finance this new recording which sees you working on somewhat of a larger scale, featuring an ensemble carrying the name "Nectar Orchestra." What led to this Idea of pushing the boundaries of instrumentation and arranging?

CM: This project was born in more of a collaboration with Noam Wiesenberg. He's not only the bassist but also responsible for the string arrangements on Amber. We both had this curiosity to write for strings and I for my part have always loved the sound of a string quartet. The first songs I wrote while I was still working on Traces. I was writing this one tune, which Noam wanted to put a string arrangement on so we just started experimenting with that right away. You can already hear and see a performance of the finalized version on YouTube; it's called "Waltz No. 1." There were no strings attached at first, no ambition for a specific project, but it worked out so well and we had so much fun writing and experimenting with it we ended up digging out some older compositions of mine that I'd never found the right place and time for. You will be able to hear these on the forthcoming album. In 2017 we finished the last 5 songs of the record and did some concerts as well.

AAJ: How did you go about finding the right people? Seeing how Noam was responsible for the arrangements was he also the one bringing in the musicians, such as Tomoko Omura, to realize them?

CM: I was trying to go for a different sound from what Traces sounds like, taking a few steps in another direction and giving it a unique sound. Today I'd say it feels like a continuation of Traces in a way, seeing how it's still me writing. But to switch it up a little I thought about bringing in a percussionist, widening the soundscape a little. I had played with Keita Ogawa before and he's amazing so I invited him on board. Eden Ladin on piano is a close friend of mine so I immediately thought of him, too, and Tomoko Omura I play with in Fabian Almazan's ensemble as well. So Noam and I just really collaborated on the choice of musicians.

AAJ: Now as a bit of a guitar-enthusiast I am of course interested in knowing what part it plays in this new collaboration. Seeing how the arrangement is thoroughly thicker than it was on its predecessor does the guitar fall further in the background serving as an ornamenting orchestral instrument or do we still get to hear it in the center?

CM: I think when it comes to my guitar playing it is a similar approach to what you find on Traces. There are some solos, but the focus is on the song. It's very balanced I'd say but it certainly shouldn't disappoint the guitar geeks!

AAJ: let's get to the two fun questions I saved up for the end. The first being: What music did you listen to most in 2017, old and new?

CM: Sufjan Stevens—"Carrie and Lowell," I love that album. It really makes me want to record an album all by myself in my room at home. And then there's Laura Mvula. And of course Kurt Rosenwinkel's Star of Jupiter is also always on rotation (We linger on raving about him for a while, going through is entire discography...). I love how we're geeking out now (she laughs).

AAJ: If could freely choose your next collaboration, who would be your dream musician to work with?

CM: Another one of those really difficult questions. I'm not quite sure in which context, but Brad Mehldau and Esperanza Spalding are two people I'd love to work with. Also it would be a dream to work with Caetano Veloso, a Brazilian singer/guitarist.

Photo Credit: Rainer A. Rygalyk

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