Lilan Kane doesn’t like to sit still. The Oakland vocalist stays on the move, creatively and geographically, building alliances that keep her musical universe expanding.
At the same time, she’s rooted in fundamentals, like the importance of building a narrative in interpreting a song. Most visible singing soul and R&B in recent years, Kane (whose given name is pronounced LEE-lawn) will delve into the music of a primary influence with her tribute to an unsurpassed master of musical storytelling, Nancy Wilson, this Sunday at the Sound Room.
Lilan Kane: Tribute to Nancy Wilson
Sunday, Jan. 29, 6 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
The Sound Room, 3022 Broadway, Oakland
“I’ve always been a fan,” Kane told The Oaklandside. “She’s not only one of the greatest vocalists; she was a completely entrancing storyteller. She was so timeless and stayed relevant for so long by staying true to herself. She never had to do anything super fancy.”
Wilson (1937 –2018) moved effortlessly between jazz, R&B, and pop settings, but her entire approach was shaped by a deep feel for jazz, a path paved by Cannonball Adderley—a charismatic alto saxophonist who was always looking to give fellow musicians a boost. In making the jump from the indie label Riverside to the powerhouse Capitol Records, one of Adderley’s first moves was recording the 1962 hit Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, an album that established Wilson as a major new voice.
Adderly had already played a pivotal role in her career. After hearing her on the supper club circuit in Columbus, Ohio, he encouraged her to move to New York City in the late 1950s. Staying in touch after she headed east, Adderley persuaded Wilson to focus on jazz tunes and sultry ballads rather than pop songs. She went on to perform and record in a myriad of idioms, but many of the songs from her Adderley collaboration stayed in her repertoire for the rest of her life, including Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry,” Nat Adderley and Curtis Lewis’s “The Old Country,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk,” and Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s “A Sleepin’ Bee.”
For the Sound Room show, Kane is collaborating with Oakland saxophonist Tony Peebles, a founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra. The quartet also features Berkeley pianist Marco Casasola, “a wonderful musician and accompanist who really knows how to play for a singer,” Kane said, and the veteran Richmond rhythm section tandem of bassist Ron Belcher and drummer Sly Randolph (who’s mentored several generations of brilliant Bay Area drummers, including Elé Howell, Genius Wesley, and Jayla Hernández).
“Sly and Ron are old-school and this music requires that,” Kane said. “They’re stellar musicians and so seasoned. They fit perfectly and never overplay.”
Reared in Novato and based in Oakland for the past decade, Kane earned a degree in vocals and music business from Boston’s Berklee College of Music. She worked for record labels and clubs in New York City for several years before she moved back to the Bay Area in 2009. Looking to deepen her musical expression, she studied the gospel music tradition at the Jazzschool with Terrence Kelley.
A songwriter who often performs her own material, Kane has been honing the Wilson program for the past year or so at venues around the region. She’ll also perform on Feb. 16 at the Blue Note Napa and Feb. 17 at Mama Kin in San Jose. After pondering projects focusing on other iconic jazz vocalists, Kane decided to approach Wilson’s oeuvre with caution.
“I toyed around with tributes to different singers, but you have to be careful,” she said. “You don’t want to be in a position where you’re trying to sound like someone else. I want to pay tribute to the music and what moved me. There are standards I often learned from Nancy’s versions. I performed it a couple of times more loosely at Black Cat and Club Deluxe. This has more intention, honoring an artist that musicians know and love, but may be a little underestimated.”
Restless creatively and otherwise, Kane was speaking via video call from Spain, where she was attending a conference at Berklee’s Valencia campus and looking into the school’s nine-month global music business master’s program. She jumped at the chance to attend the Berklee Global Career Summit while in the midst of a pandemic-induced “mid-life crisis,” she said. “January is a slow time on the Bay Area scene. I figured it was a good chance to go back to school for a few days. Since the pandemic, I’ve felt a little plateaued. The scene is different. It’s been great to get out of town.”
Kane’s contributions to the scene are manifold as a vocalist, songwriter, educator, and collaborator. She delved into a particularly interesting project after being inducted into the Jazz Mafia a few years. When the Oakland-based collective spun off the Cosa Nostra Strings featuring violinist Shaina Evoniuk, violist Keith Lawrence, cellist Lewis Patzner, drummer/percussionist Aaron Kierbel, and Adam Theis on trombone and bass, Kane was one of the vocalists they called on. She’s featured on 2020’s Shadows, a four-song EP that was recorded during a fall lull in the pandemic.
Theis, the Jazz Mafia don, was impressed but not surprised that Kane was game for the unconventional instrumentation. “We thought, let’s challenge ourselves and do something different,” he said. “Lilan was super down for the ride. Cello? Violin? She’s like, no problem. And we love working with her. One of the things that impresses me the most is how complete a musician she is. She doesn’t always flex it, but there are so many musical concepts that are more associated with instrumentalists that she understands. We speak the same language.”