Walking down Shattuck a few weeks ago during the Bay Area Book Festival I came across a young man on the corner singing “A Foggy Day” ably accompanied by a keyboardist. Possessing a lithe and soulful sound, he swung effortlessly while imbuing Ira Gershwin’s epiphanic lyric with a true sense of surprise. I wasn’t the only pedestrian halted by his fine-grained tenor and graceful presence, and, despite running late for a coffee date, I lingered to hear three more tunes. This was my introduction to Kalil Wilson, a tremendously gifted vocalist who performs Sunday afternoon at the California Jazz Conservatory with his band, Love.
I’d been seeing his name around for a while, but hadn’t made it to one of his gigs yet, so catching him unexpectedly on the street, with no preconceptions or forewarning, was particularly pleasurable. Note to self: it’s good to get out of the house.
An Oakland native, Wilson sounds like he’s been singing jazz all his life, but he spent his formative years training for operatic settings. The son of well-known Nigerian bassist and bandleader Babá Ken Okulolo and highly supportive mom Jackie Gay Wilson, he describes an early encounter with an aria from Puccini that left him shaken and moved. “It was just this incredibly visceral experience, turning your body into this sound cannon,” he recalls.
Immersed in music in Albany schools and UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, he thrived despite working around dyslexia that made learning to read music an uphill struggle. Despite that impediment, he was such an impressive singer that he earned a spot in UCLA’s Voice and Opera program, though he ended up finding a much more comfortable home in ethnomusicology.
“A couple months in I realized they would not be able to accommodate my learning difference,” Wilson says. “YMP tried to prepare them, but they couldn’t change the major for someone who couldn’t read music. Then in ethnomusicology I found a scholarly discussion of music that was marginalized, considering it along side classical music.”
Ethnomusicology helped turn his attention to jazz, and while he was on track for a successful concert career, paying his rent and winning numerous classical vocal competitions, Wilson gradually decided that jazz was his true musical calling. He released a debut CD in 2009 focusing on standards, Easy To Love, an impressive session anchored by Albany-raised bassist Chris Bastian (who’s now part of his working trio, with pianist Dan Marschak and 14-year-old Oakland drummer Genius Wesley).
He’s way overdue for a new album, but Wilson has found no lack of champions in his chosen field. He helped legendary Cuban vocalist Omara Portuondo kick off a European tour by joining her for a duet in Barcelona in 2011. The next year he joined Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Cindy Blackman, Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland, and Carlos Santana at an all-star “Celebrating Peace” concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
In the Bay Area he’s been holding down a weekly gig at Club Deluxe in the Haight for the past year (early sets on Wednesdays). Still a work in progress eager to gather new experiences, he’s discovering himself in the American Songbook, a process of trial and error in which he’s revealed himself as one of the finest male jazz vocalists on the scene.
“The scientist in me loves throwing ideas up against bandmates and the audience to see if they work,” he says. “Sometimes they don’t and sometimes they do. I love the continual process. The American Songbook is field filled with a lot of rocks and fool’s gold, but also some gems that don’t lose their brilliance no matter how many times they’re performed.”
Recommended gigs: Barrio Manouche/Ultrafaux; Kazemde George; Steve Adams; Nano Stern
Barrio Manouche: The flamenco-tinged combo Barrio Manouche is one of the most exciting additions to the Bay Area Gypsy swing scene. Featuring Spanish-born brothers Javi and Luis Jiménez (on guitar and cajon, respectively), guitarist Alex Zelnick, Quebec-born fiddler Magali Sanscartier, and bassist Chris Bastian, the band performs July 16 at La Peña on a double bill with Baltimore Gyspy jazz combo Ultrafaux.
Kazemde George: In the midst of crafting a sound that embraces various currents in the far-flung African diapsora Berkeley-raised saxophonist Kazemde George has been performing a series of gigs around the region in recent weeks with fellow Brooklynite Sami Stevens, a savvy vocalist who brings an improvisation-laced sensibility to R&B and infuses jazz standards with soul. He plays the Back Room at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 17, joined by pianist Malcolm Campbell, guitarist Justin Rock, bassist Giullo Cetto, and drummer Mike Quigg.
Steve Adams: While best known as a long-time member of ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Steve Adams can often be found in other creatively charged musically settings. He and bassist Scott Walton celebrate the release of their new duo CD Cookies for Cyrano (pfMENTUM) at Maybeck Recital Hall 3 p.m. Sunday July 17. They’ll also play their suite of pieces by Ornette Coleman. Walton occupies the volatile terrain between jazz, free improvisation, and new music, and over the years has collaborated with innovators such as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, pianist Myra Melford, guitarist Nels Cline, trombonist George Lewis, clarinetist John Carter, and cornetist Bobby Bradford, among many others.
Nano Stern: You may have seen Chilean singer/songwriter Nano Stern when Joan Baez featured him on her PBS NYC Beacon Theatre Special last January. The latest in a glorious lineage of progressive Chilean folk musicians, Stern broke through internationally with last year’s Mil 500 Vueltas, a hit album that features guest appearances by an array of Latin American artists, including Uruguayan star Jorge Drexler, Colombian vocalist Marta Gomez, Afro-Peruvian icon Susana Baca and Argentine Pedro Aznar. Stern plays Freight & Salvage on Wednesday, July 20.
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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