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In less than a decade, tenor KALIL WILSON has become one of the most potent and promising young vocalists of his generation. Gifted with a powerful yet nuanced voice reminiscent of legends like Nat King Cole, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder, and armed with a technical versatility that positions him comfortably in classical, jazz, R&B, pop and various other contexts, Wilson has earned high marks from the music press and has captivated audiences around the globe with performances that defy easy categorization.
Despite a resume that already includes classical performances at the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Aspen Summer Music Festival and other prestigious venues, Wilson is just getting started. His self-produced 2009 debut album, Easy To Love, not only garnered consistent airplay on jazz radio, but also served as a platform for a series of noteworthy performances in the West Coast club and festival circuit.
Guitarist Kenny Burrell has called him “a very special young talent with a unique sound that crosses through genres.” Soprano Renee Fleming once said, “Kalil makes me cry.” Without question, this is a young star on the rise.
Born in October 1981 in Oakland, California, Wilson claims a unique pedigree. His father is Nigerian bassist and bandleader Babá Ken Okulolo, and his mother is a classical flutist, jazz enthusiast and longtime supporter of the musical arts whose massive and diverse record collection – consisting of Afro-Caribbean jazz, Motown, salsa, American pop and more – helped trigger young Kalil’s musical awakening at an early age.
By the time he was 12, Wilson was singing with the Oakland Youth Chorus, whose repertoire included “everything from Gregorian chants to show tunes,” he recalls, “everything from pieces that were composed just a couple months ago to music that was hundreds of years old.”
After a brief stint in the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley, Wilson enrolled at UCLA, where he continued to study and perform classical music while pursuing a degree in ethnomusicology. “I wasn’t finding the human approach to understanding music in the theory and history classes that were part of the classical vocal or musicology curriculum,” says Wilson. “I was looking for more of the meaning that I had encountered in my upbringing – the idea of music as something that’s not isolated from the audience, the idea that music could move people and create community. In ethnomusicology, I found the study of music with a view toward history and human society. It looks at the interplay between music and people.”
In the years after college, while still performing classical music, Wilson gravitated toward jazz, R&B and other more contemporary styles. “I started to realize that a lot of the music that I had listened to when I was young – all of the African, Caribbean and American music – are really forms of jazz,” he says. “They may not be called jazz, but they contain all the same forces that are at work in jazz. All of these forms of music are conversations in which people are working things out within a melodic and harmonic framework. You don’t get jazz without salsa. You don’t get jazz without rumba or Cuban son. You don’t get jazz without all these people from all over the world coming together and exchanging ideas.”
The result of this foray was Easy To Love, an album that actually began as a four-song demo recorded with the Berkeley Everett Trio. Encouraged by Burrell, Wilson and the trio went back onto the studio to flesh out the demo with eleven more tracks. The resulting set consists mostly of jazz standards like “Stardust,” “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” but also includes a heartfelt reading of the Stevie Wonder ballad, “If It’s Magic.”
Throughout the project, Wilson’s classical training provided him with the vocal discipline necessary to create a technically solid recording, but that same discipline had to be momentarily “unlearned” at various points along the way. “I had to loosen up and really experience what was going on with the music,” he says. “I had to figure out how to get away from the written melody, how to get away from the composed aspects of the tune and find the greater spaces for self-expression that are afforded by jazz.”
For the West Coast press and radio community, Easy to Love was aptly titled. The San Francisco Chronicle called Wilson “a star on the rise…well on his way to an impressive career.” AllAboutJazz.com praised the album as “a debut of bottomless depth and grandeur.” Melanie Berzon, music director at KCSM 91.1 FM, called the album “just a really, really beautiful, fine piece of work.”
Wilson’s more recent accomplishments include being selected as one of the twelve semifinalists in the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in early October 2010. “It was an amazing experience to go to Washington and see some of the people whom we’re lucky enough to still have with us – giants who made an early and important mark on the jazz tradition. These are the people who maintain the light of jazz, and I felt honored just to be among them.”
In November, Wilson joins guitarist Carlos Santana in a performance with the Oakland East Bay Symphony, led by conductor Michael Morgan. The November 19 and 20 performances at the Paramount Theater in Oakland – which include the world premiere of composer Michael Narada Walden’s The Enchanted Forest: Seven Higher Worlds of Music – mark the opening of the East Bay Symphony’s 2010-2011 season.
At the end of the year, Wilson will relocate to Paris, where several gigs in France and throughout Europe await him in 2011 and beyond. The seeds of this new adventure were planted early on, says Wilson, as French language and culture were very much a part of the music he listened to as a child. “Paris is steeped in the kind of history and audience and ambiance that gives me inspiration,” he says. “There’s something that’s pulling me to Paris, and to Europe in general.”
Whatever placed Kalil Wilson calls home, whatever kind of music he’s singing on any given night – be it jazz, classical, R&B or some genre yet to be discovered and explored – he remains committed to shedding a light on the thread that holds it all together, not just for himself but for his audiences and for the music itself. “I have found in the end that jazz and classical music are really much more connected than they are disparate,” he says. “But that’s the kind of trend I’m seeing in music in general. In many ways, they really are all the same voice, but just channeled through different experiences and different periods in history. If you’re being genuine with your own experience and your own approach to the music, you can find commonality in whatever genre you pick.”