Kalil Amar Wilson
Kalil Amar Wilson

I have a confession. Traditional American Christmas music generally doesn’t get me in the holiday spirit. Kitka’s glorious Balkan and Eastern European harmonies are more my speed. Still, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch Kalil Amar Wilson’s holiday show at Keys Jazz Bistro.

The Berkeley-reared vocalist (who uses they/them pronouns) is getting reestablished on the Bay Area scene after several years performing widely around Russia before the pandemic put the kibosh on international travel. A few months back I caught Wilson sitting in with Kim Nalley at Keys, and their casually virtuosic scatting made it clear that the club’s proprietor, keyboardist Simon Rowe, was going to bring Wilson back for a featured spot. 

Wilson planned to play the two-night engagement with pianist Tammy Hall, but her health setback changed the plan, and the band featured Rowe on piano and Hammond B-3 organ, drummer Joe Kelner, and bassist Gary Brown. The trio kicked off the late show Friday night with an arrangement of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” that foreshadowed an evening of audacious reinvention. Rather than taking the standard at its usual dolorous tempo, the trio turned the passive-aggressive lament into a buoyantly boastful jaunt with a peppy tempo. 

Simon Rowe
Simon Rowe | Courtesy of Keys Jazz Bistro

Wilson took a similar tack with a program of holiday themes. A consummate musician with a sweet soul-steeped sound, a gift for melodically guided improvisation, and a knack for musical storytelling, they opened with an expansive version of Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” with Rowe playing swelling chords on B-3.

The smooth phrasing brought Johnny Hartman to mind, though Wilson’s silken tenor is considerably higher than the late great crooner’s chesty baritone. Adding a kicker to the lyric changed the entire meaning of the song, transforming a date query into a marriage proposal.

Wilson and the band infused “Silent Night” with a celebratory groove inspired by the New Orleans beat from the Ahmad Jamal Trio’s classic rendition of “Poinciana,” laid down with graceful precision by Kelner and Brown. Moving to the piano, Rowe kept a languid tempo on Robert Wells and Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song,” the most traditionally rendered tune on Wilson’s set. 

“White Christmas,” a song mostly avoided by jazz singers, started serene and nostalgic, but Wilson got on the pulpit and took Irving Berlin to church, delivering a scorching soul sermon. Sneaking the blues in by the back door by claiming “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good to You?” as a holiday song (“Bought you a fur coat for Christmas”) gave the set some welcome grit, and Wilson closed the show with a high-velocity sprint through “That’s All,” unleashing their prodigious scat-singing skills.

I may not be the biggest fan of the Christmas songbook, but only a grinch would resist the wondrous voice of Kalil Amar Wilson.