October 8, 2019
The charango is a diminutive, lute-like Andean instrument, most typically with a rounded back and five courses of double strings. In the imposing hands of Ila Cantor, it looks almost like a toy. But the gorgeous body of music she’s created for the charango bespeaks a serious commitment to exploring its potential outside of folkloric contexts.
Best known as an adventurous jazz guitarist, composer, and vocalist, Cantor has forged deep ties to some of the Bay Area’s most creative musicians over the past decade. Those relationships are at the center of her enchanting body of tunes on her aptly titled fifth album Encanto (Enchantment), a project for the Bay Area indie label Slow and Steady.
Celebrating the album’s release Saturday at Manny’s, a cozy San Francisco performance space in the heart of the Mission, Cantor delivered a concert of sumptuously textured pieces that encompass chamber jazz, folk music, and devotional songs. Featuring clarinetist Ben Goldberg and accordionist Rob Reich, who’ve collaborated widely since their days in the uncategorizable ensemble Tin Hat, and bassist Schuyler Karr, and drummer Eric Garland, the quintet performed with minimal amplification, creating their own beautifully calibrated mix on stage.
The music often felt like an investigation of contrasts, with the charango’s chiming treble notes and the piping clarinet flowing against the accordion’s low end and the arco (bowed) bass lines, all buoyed by Garland’s feathery brush work. Cantor’s tunes conjure a musical realm that seems to alternately mirror the natural world and reflect inner states of consciousness, like on her filigreed ode to the moon “Crescent.”
Offering a folkloric touchstone, she played “Quiero ser tu sombra” (I want to be your shadow), a Venezuelan-style waltz by Chilean composer Héctor Soto. The charango knows no borders, and neither does Cantor’s music. The concert’s centerpiece was her three-part suite Epic of Play, which opens with an urgent, theme driven by a repeated three-note figure. Each movement introduces a different set of instrumental relationships for the charango to navigate.
For the second set, the band was joined for two songs by vocalist Lauren Arrow, who provided subtle harmonies for Cantor on “Descending From Above.” But it was Cantor’s picaresque, Spanish-language song “Yeshowah” that crystalized the Encanto project, erasing distinctions between folkloric chant, art song, and improvisational vehicle.
Cantor has been keeping a low profile on the Bay Area scene in recent years, though it’s been clear her music is evolving in interesting directions. In 2017 she released the three-song EP As You Are, which introduced her pop-inflected songwriting. With Encanto, she’s documented a new chapter that seems ripe for further exploration. Wherever Cantor’s music goes from here, the album is an impressive achievement by an artist with a singularly inviting vision.