I first noticed the mighty Camila Nebbia as part of Damsel Talk’s live band back in July of 2018. I was stunned by the sounds pouring out of her, at times a frantic, boisterous blare, other times a warm and welcoming cushion to the sounds around it. I immediately wanted to know more about what she did, and I was blown away when I discovered the extent of her involvement in the jazz and avant garde scenes.
Turns out Camila is a tremendously accomplished musician, with a background in film and music studies as well as an ample list of credits with many musical projects; everything from jazz ensembles (including her Charles Mingus Tribute project Mingunos) to experimental, improv-based art pieces, to her own compositions. She’s traveled internationally to attend workshops and participate in residencies under renowned greats. She’s won grants to finance her work. She’s a prolific music-maker, and relentless in her approaches to music both on stage and off.
She’s also a remarkably kind-hearted and humble person, as we found out when we sat down with her recently. We talked about her background, her various projects, and her new album Aura, coming out in July on the label ears&eyes records. Along with her 10-piece ensemble, she’ll be performing music from the album at a special show at Roseti on March 1st.
I read that you actually started out playing in a punk band when you were a teenager. Tell me about Vigilia.
Yes. Punk is something that I just love. I’ve always loved it and will always love it. In my teenage years, I listened to a lot of rock music. Some friends and I got together and formed a band. I played the bass. I was already playing the saxophone by that point, I’d been playing sax since I was 9 years old, and had already played with a few groups. But as far as a personal artistic project, that was my first one.
I advanced my studies with the saxophone, and slowly I put away the bass. I started discovering jazz, abandoning the punk scene. To me, it’s all about being open to music and the different paths where it takes you. With time, I started connecting all the different types of music that I love in my own work. I don’t feel that I’m strictly a jazz musician.
But it’s the scene you’re most active in, right? You released a whole bunch of albums last year.
Yeah, I have no idea how many (laughs)
You do a lot of free improvisation in your work, but you also play standards and other more traditional pieces. Do you separate the two in your mind? Do you prefer one over the other?
To me, the most important thing is to find a way to express myself in each situation, and to do it as purely as possible. Yes, I do sometimes feel a difference in terms of how a piece should be tackled, but I love to be able to express myself, my authentic self, in each situation. It’s different, though. Performing written music in comparison to improvising, it exercises different parts of you.
As someone who is hopeless at any sort of improv, I am fascinated by musicians who get up there and just follow the music where it takes them. What goes on in your brain when you’re improvising on stage?
That’s a tough question! It depends on the situation, what I’m improvising on. If it’s free improv, I try to be connected with the moment, the people, the situation, what moves me. It’s not easy to always be 100% connected, it’s a huge challenge, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I try not to have too much on my mind. It’s a constant search.
I heard you actually had a stint as a performing musician in a cruise ship on the Caribbean. Tell me what that was like.
It was good! Working every day, playing standards…. I found it to be very good in the sense that it provided some training, and it paid pretty well. It also gave me time to study and do other things, get to know places… still, I don’t know that I’d do it again. Probably not… at least for now. Right now, I like to play a different type of music and I think it’s important to be faithful to that, to build on that.
Do you enjoy playing or composing more?
I love both things equally. I love to perform on stage. I try to keep a balance between the two. I get a more immediate kick out of playing live, but when I start working on a project and I sit down to write on the piano, I just never want to stop.
You recently released the album De Este Lado. Tell me about that.
De Este Lado is an album of solo sax improvisations. I also experimented with some effect pedals, which was fun, and also some spoken-word poetry. It was all done on the spot. I didn’t add anything later. That was the concept. Whatever came out, I wanted to do it on the spot. Everything you hear was extemporaneous. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would generate something new, that would pose a challenge. It’s also something I’d been exploring for a while, those effect pedals. The album was released along with a poetry fanzine, and it was a great experience to put it all together.
Last year also saw the release of La Jaula Se Ha Vuelto Pájaro y Se Ha Volado, a collaborative album with a group of female improvisers. How did that come together?
That was a project that was born in late 2018, with the goal to create a space, like a small independent festival, for women improvisers from the local scene. And when I put that together — it was on December 8th, and our event was shut down by the city government. It happened just one hour before the show. We found ourselves without a venue. Thankfully, a place called Vicente El Absurdo opened its doors for us and we were able to play there. At the time, we were very frustrated. We felt unjustly targeted, and it felt like another example of systemic discrimination — this was a modest event celebrating women! When they suddenly shut down an event like this, it really mobilized us. We had a saxophone player who had come here from Holland, some musician friends from Rosario who came here to play, all out of love for the music, because there’s not a lot of money in this sort of project. A lot of people came together for it. Doing it in Vicente was great, and created a sort of greater need to take this project even further, because we all felt energized by what happened that day between all of us. We felt bonded by it, by how we all dealt with things. I was so stressed that day. Imagine, you put together an event and it falls apart like that… but in the end, everything turned out beautifully.
So I thought it would be good to put together an album, bringing together even more women improvisers, serving as a sort of manifesto. Violeta García, a great friend of mine and great cellist, joined the project, and we started putting it together. We wanted to bring women of different generations and backgrounds together. There are many improvisers here who don’t get the attention they deserve. The idea was to connect them with other generations, put together a kind of community. The nicest thing about the project was that we booked half a day in the studio, and we had all the time mapped out for each musician to come along, do three improvisations, and on to the next one. No frills. It was a huge risk, but it turned out beautifully. It felt like sharing. Nothing went wrong, everything flowed perfectly, and I am very happy with the album. There were collaborations from the distance, too. We recorded it in January — Ada Rave sent us something from Holland; Ingrid Benigher, who is a saxophonist from Olavarría sent us something she recorded herself because she couldn’t make it here; the girls from Rosario sent us a piece; Barbara Togander recorded something herself because she was traveling at the time… it was beautiful.
And you produced the album, right?
Yes. Most of it, yes, with help of Violeta and the performers. Those who could contribute would chip in. It really was a labor of love. The photographer shot it nearly for free, the engineers too, the studio we got at a discount rate… we all helped each other. I incurred much of the cost, and the organization was put together with the help of Violeta.
It’s interesting think about how something negative can result in something good. Like maybe if the event hadn’t been shut down..
Yeah, you just never know. Sometimes things happen for a reason. In fact, when we moved things over to Vicente, the owner Fernando told me “Cami, it would be great if you could do this again next year. You can have March 8th.” And even though I questioned whether it should be done on that specific date, I think it would be good. I want it to also be accompanied by an album as well.
As someone who moves in the city’s jazz circuit, do you think women are given enough prominence?
There’s a lot more women playing these days. Great musicians. Women composers, too. But we’re not given enough space. This is something that has always that way, even in our education. The fact that they don’t talk about women from the history of music, not just from Argentina but from the world. This demonstrates that it’s always a struggle to remain part of the circuit. Now there’s a little more visibility, but to me it’s still a very male dominated space. I don’t really consider myself a jazz musician, I strayed away from all that. Even though I play in spaces and groups that could be considered jazz, I feel myself more connected to another type of scene– experimentation, improvisation, things that are a little more open. But I’m really interested in women getting more exposure. I hope it continues to open up.
What are you listening to right now that is blowing your mind?
Matana Roberts. She just released a new installment of her Coin Coin series. I met her recently, because I went to a workshop in Canada, in Banff, and she was there. It was beautiful to get to know her. She’s a very deep, very kind person. It made me appreciate her music even more. You could tell her project is very honest and personal, and she’ll tell you that it’s something that flows from her, that she’s channeling, that is not 100% hers. It’s great to have that humility.
What’s next for you, musically?
I’m about to release a new album. I just finished it. It’s called Aura and will be released in July. We recorded it with a large ensemble, a ten-piece band. I wrote the music, but there’s also a lot of improvisation. We’ll be presenting the album on March 1st, in Rosetti. And then on March 15th, I’m leaving Argentina.
Why are you leaving Argentina?
My partner and I are leaving together. I love being here, I love being close to the people I love, I love all the projects I participate in. But sometimes you want to experience other things, other experiences. It’s hard to live here as a musician. So I’m going to Italy to get my citizenship, because it takes a very long time to do it here, and then after that it’s a mystery. Not sure where we’re going. I want to explore, see what happens, and see where life takes us.
Camila Nebbia will be playing at Roseti on March 1st. More information here. Her album Aura will be released in July. Follow her on Instagram, and check her out on Spotify.