A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Rachel Thalia Fisher, courtesy of the artist.

Camila Meza engages listeners by sharing her unique experiences and personal longings. Hers are stories of movement, both journeys and emergences.

On the heels of her studio release Ámbar (Sony Masterworks), the Chilean-born singer, guitarist and composer returns to the bandstand to perform Portal, her 2019 Jazz Gallery Residency Commission. While composing the project, Meza chose to explore new music in an instrumental context unfamiliar to her, in part, so she could inhabit one of Portal’s essential themes: the struggle to seek and find solutions to hard questions.

Ahead of her performance, Meza spoke with the Jazz Speaks about joys and challenges of creating possibilities, her connection to vocal harmony, and the enduring aesthetic of “layering” in her work.

The Jazz Gallery: In terms of instrumentation, this project is a departure from your work with the Nectar Orchestra.

Camila Meza: I’d say so. Although in its quantity, it’s similar. It’s a lot of people.

TJG: And you’ve been playing with and composing for Nectar over the past three years—or longer than that?

CM: Well [the Nectar] project started maybe around six years ago but, in the middle, I was taking care of Traces. There was some sort of hiatus for that album, so the last three years have been totally dedicated to Ámbar.

TJG: In what ways do you feel your compositions have expanded—or maybe your compositional style has expanded—as a result of spending so much time with the orchestra?

CM: Having the possibility to experiment with a larger group of people, a wider instrumentation, it really, intuitively gives you so many more options in terms of arranging and landscaping the songs and compositions. It puts you in a position of having to pay a lot of attention to detail and ask yourself “How am I going to use all of these sounds in a cohesive way so that I take advantage of them and also use them in a way that serves the music?”

TJG: Did you ever find those possibilities overwhelming, or did you always sort of find them to be intriguing?

CM: Both. It definitely enhances your creativity. You suddenly have more colors to play with, which sounds enticing, but you’re also in front of another problem to solve. You have to pay attention so you’re able to use these colors without overusing them only because you have them in front of you. That’s the challenge.

TJG: And that took a degree of goldilocking as you went along?

CM: Well, the sound of the string quartet is like a unit. So in that sense, it kind of works as an instrument itself. The four voices become one. So I would say that in that particular case with the Nectar Orchestra, it was more about, “How can I use this new instrument in a way that it describes the music through the four minutes, five minutes, and make it interesting? How can I use them in new ways? How can I create new textures?” It was different from what I’m doing now with this new piece.

TJG: You’ve put together a very strong rhythm section for Portal, and you’re bringing together additional vocals, harp, percussion and electronic components; how did you land on this configuration?

CM: This whole piece kind of started revealing itself through time. I had some ideas of what I wanted to use. The harp is definitely an instrument that has been on my wish list for a long time. But it’s such a unique instrument and also a hard instrument in its logistics. There’s not so many harpists—at least in our scene, the jazz scene. And also, it’s a very big instrument and hard to travel with. I think that this commission gave me the opportunity to really go beyond the normal contexts and let my imagination free.

TJG: It’s cool that you were able to realize this dream you had of experimenting with the instrument.

CM: Totally. And then with the voices, that also was definitely on my bucket list. As a singer, harmonizing with other singers is one of the most pleasurable things to do, and I’m sure so many singers feel the same way. It’s so much fun to hear harmony with human voices. Immediately you get goosebumps. It brings me back to childhood, singing with my sister. We used to spend hours singing songs we liked and trying to harmonize as much as we could and get really precise with our inflections and intonation. It felt and still feels like a fun game.

TJG: And including your voice, you have four singers?

CM: Yes.

TJG: If you would, talk to me about layers. In the past, we’ve spoken about your rhythmic layering. And recently, not just with Portal, but with Ámbar, you’ve been working with a lot of textural and harmonic layering. Why do you think you feel at home playing and composing with a layering aesthetic?

CM: There’s something about being able to express rhythm and harmony in that way that maybe has to do with a personal feeling that there’s so much beauty in creating one organism with many parts that serve a bigger purpose. It’s very human. Musically speaking, I’ve always been attracted to sounds that have that particular characteristic. Basically, you hear a whole, a big picture, but then when you pay attention [to it], you suddenly start hearing more and more and more. And when all those parts work together in a great way, you feel that the ear also has this tendency to want to come back to sounds like these. You’re always finding something new, on every listen. I remember hearing records that have this particular way of writing that, it’s so much fun because the third time you’re listening to that song, you’re like, “Whoa, I’ve never heard that before, that little melody, there.” It’s something [that’s] very appealing as a composer.

TJG: When I imagine you composing, I think about how visual artists compose their pieces.

CM: I love that.

TJG: You have a song called All Your Colors where you really do seem to play all the colors, and I think that’s something unique about your sound. If we can jump back to the vocals for a minute, you had a past interview for the Gallery during which you talked about your vocal journey. You said, “Particularly in jazz, it’s very difficult to move from the imitation to the personal expression.” As you’ve explored new instrumental contexts as a composer and a player, do you feel you’ve locked in to your sound more as a singer?

CM: Yes. Definitely yes. This blank canvas you’re confronting makes you go deep within your sound: what are you really hearing? Without having any constraints or limitations, then you’re so free to really hear those colors or those ideas that are coming from this inner world. Having that possibility, particularly with this commission, it was very apparent that  it was a challenge, but also what I had to do was really listen to what I had inside. And for me, particularly playing with this instrumentation gave me a platform to experiment even further in this direction.

TJG: Portal takes a serious tone in order to make a timely statement about what’s going on in our country and in our world, but ultimately offers this range of hope for the future. What are some compositional and maybe lyrical devices or strategies you may have used to communicate that messaging?

CM: I’ve said before—maybe in one of our interviews—how much I have this tendency to create narratives that envision solutions, that envision positive aspects of problems, like, “How do we get out of here?”

I guess it’s the part of my personality that rebels against the defeat in me. That feeling is too easy, movement stops after that. So in the context of my life and my lyrics I have this inner need to always try to find light, find a way out. For Portal, I decided to experiment with both sides to be able to experience the transition. That’s why it became very much a journey. It’s really meant to be played almost from top to bottom, from the beginning to the end with no breaks. And I did allow myself this time to be in a dark urgent place. Because you’re constantly bringing reality with your work, it was important to me to situate it in a place that feels like the current state of being of society. From there, the story [unfolds as] this vision and this constant pushing for a tangible better future. Through these songs, I’m constantly pushing to create this reality that will take us out of the darkness.

Musically, it was definitely a journey, too. Writing this music in such a short amount of time, it was so interesting to me because I take my time with records. By record, I mean a new hour of music. It was a new experience, which I totally appreciated. And I guess it feels super epic at the same time. It’s funny because sometimes I take up challenges and I give myself even more challenges. It wasn’t like, “Okay, I’m just gonna write an hour of music and do something simple.” It felt like I really pushed myself in the [hardest] way with eight people, four voices, all these lyrics and a whole story. Honestly, I look back on these eight months and I don’t even know how I did this.

The Jazz Gallery Residency Commission 2018-2019 presents Camila Meza’s Portal on Friday June 28, and Saturday June 29, 2019. Performances feature Ms. Meza on guitar and vocals, Margaret Davis on harp and vocals, Sarah Elizabeth Charles on vocals, Alina Engibaryan on vocals, Caleb van Gelder on electronics and percussion, Nitai Hershkovitz on piano and keys, Noam Wiesenberg on bass and Ofri Nehemya on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.