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.