By Lily O’Brien
“I have this commitment right now to just follow my heart when it comes to music,” says jazz guitarist Ila Cantor by telephone from her home in Oakland. A serious jazz guitar student in New York at age 15, she began a successful career that included performing, recording and teaching in New York and Barcelona. But at 25, everything changed.
“I had a little bit of an existential crisis,” she says with a laugh. “It was a feeling that I couldn’t find meaning in what I was doing.” Cantor says that she suddenly realized that the career she had been striving for was one that her parents, teachers and mentors had chosen for her. “It was heartbreaking.”
So she decided to take a break. “I quit playing and moved to Hawaii and completely changed my life,” Cantor says. “It was a dramatic time.”
But while in Hawaii, she began playing again, on the beach, just for fun. And then she discovered songwriting. “It was a beautiful way for me to express and explore what I really love about music,” Cantor says. After a couple of years, she decided to move to California to pursue music again, but more freely.
Recently, Cantor, 32, fell in love with the charengo, a 10-string Peruvian instrument, and has been composing melodies and chord changes for it inspired by her jazz guitar music. “It just sounds so cool and different because this instrument has never been played in this way,” she says. “I’m going for a sort of hypnotic quality that’s not about lines and licks, but more about the shifting of harmonies and grooves—something a little more subtle.”
Cantor (on charengo and guitar) performs at Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael on Friday, June 30, as part of the nonprofit Jazz in the Neighborhood concert series, along with John Witala (upright bass), Hamir Atwal (drums) and her student Spencer Handley (guitar), who will open the show with a short set.
“I am exploring ways to express music that are inspiring and deepen my love for music,” Cantor says. “That’s where I’m at right now. It’s just coming out.”
Ila Cantor, Friday, June 30, Copperfield’s Books, 850 Fourth Street, San Rafael; 6pm; free; 415/524-2800; jazzintheneighborhood.org.