Listening to the variety of compositions penned by guitarist Ila Cantor, you get the sense that she is as comfortable in Brooklyn’s new music scene as she would have been filling in for Charlie Christian at Minton’s, that Manhattan crucible of bebop, in the ’40s. Then again, she might have been equally at home subbing for Barry Melton, Country Joe and the Fish’s lead guitarist, at San Francisco’s Fillmore in ’67.
Her material merges influences from jazz to psychedelia, electronica to pop, and she delights in the freedom to explore the entire musical landscape. She drops piquantly unexpected rhythmic and harmonic accents into her melodies and often uses the smallest phrases to build imposing musical structures and intriguing sonic puzzles.
“I like to write things that are easily associable, something that people can grab on to,” she says, “but then turn that into something else. I guess it’s just the way I like to hear things. I like things that sound really conventional but actually aren’t.”
Cantor’s trio, featuring drummer Tommy Crane and bassist Matt Brewer, will be building musical structures and puzzles on Thursday night—a rare opportunity to catch this original voice fronting her own group in New Mexico.
Growing up in an artistic family in Westchester County, N.Y., Cantor leaned first toward graphic arts, with guitar as more a hobby than anything else. When her older brother introduced her to the music of The Doors, however, the guitar went into the ascendant.
“I like things that sound really conventional but actually aren’t.”
She enrolled in the music program at The New School, but a year there, followed by a semester in Barcelona, convinced her that she could learn more in the real world. She withdrew from school and set up shop in Gaudí’s city, where she found many opportunities to play. Barcelona also gave her the opportunity to explore her heritage—her mom is Puerto Rican—and learn Spanish.
“That was a completely intuitive move, as most things are in my life,” she says. “I met some great musicians that I got along with, and it seemed like a really open scene.”
She acknowledges that leaving school left some gaps in her musical education that she’s filling in—“analysis skills and reading skills and things like that”—but it also allowed her to explore her creative side, both as a composer and an improviser, and find a voice and sound of her own.
With the broadening experience of Barcelona under her belt, Cantor returned to New York, where she’s pursued numerous projects. They include FaciliT—an electronic, Internet-only collaboration with Tom Warburton—as well as a stint in the Lascivious Biddies, an all-female group whose saucy blend of jazz, pop and cabaret won them international recognition. Then, there’s the edgier jazz/rock sound of her band The Trapezoids.
Now residing in northern New Mexico, where she moved to escape the rigors of New York City, Cantor keeps up with her Big Apple colleagues, taking trips Back East and bringing friends out west. She’s also been playing with Jon Gagan at El Mesón in Santa Fe on a regular basis.
Cantor’s intricate, accessible compositions reflect her wide-ranging musical curiosity. Her compositional ideas typically don’t develop in a linear fashion; instead, they unfold organically, like a flower, each spreading petal exposing another layer of meaning and possibility, and perhaps a different genre.
“One of the things that appeals to me the most in music and composition is form,” she says. “When I write a melody, it’s a melody, but the interesting thing to me is how is the form going to work. It’s not always conventional ... I just let it develop and try to put meaning to the tune by the way I organize the form.”
She’s found unique, often playful ways to accomplish that, ways that satisfy both the intellect and the heart.