INTERVIEW: Laila Biali (Canadian vocalist/ first album on ACT for release late Jan)

Laila Biali
Photo credit and ©: Rockie Nolan

Canadian vocalist/pianist LAILA BIALI launches her first album on the German label ACT – entitled Laila Biali –  later this month. She describes it as her “most authentic project to date”. Sebastian found out more of the background in this email interview:

LondonJazz News: The press release for your debut album on ACT puts prominently that you worked as backing vocalist with Sting. For how long, and how did the connection happen in the first place?

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It was Lisa Fischer who asked me to audition for Sting’s 2009 DVD project, If On A Winter’s Night. We’d never met, but she’d been given my name by a mutual singer in New York City. I went into the audition cold, and there were a few rounds during which Sting’s producer, Robert Sadin, experimented with different combinations. I was delighted to make the final cut, and just a few weeks later, I was whisked off to Sting’s estate in Tuscany, where the vocalists rehearsed together before joining a larger group in Durham. It just so happens that, upon my return from that initial stint, my husband and I conceived our first child – so the remainder of my time “on the road” with Sting was spent with a baby bun in tow! It was quite something. Since then, Sting and I have remained in touch, and he’s asked me to rejoin him for a smattering of gigs and a bit of creative workshopping in the studio, which is always a treat. He’s an extraordinary talent, of course, but also a very fine human being.

LJN: Your parents were first generation Canadians and you were born in North Vancouver? Where were they from originally?

LB: My Dad is from Damietta in Egypt, a city famous for its carpentry. My Mom is from Kassel in Germany, where I had the opportunity to perform a few years ago.

LJN: And how/when did the music take hold of you?

LB: Apparently, it was quite early. According to my Mom, I climbed up onto the piano bench when I was just over three years of age, and began to plunk out the Sesame Street Theme. That was it! She enrolled me in formal piano lessons at four, and by eight I was thoroughly obsessed with classical music. I would listen to cassette tapes every night while going to sleep and dream of playing such rich and elaborate songs at the piano. The music thrilled me. And the thought of thrilling others through music thrilled me even more.

LJN: Did you study jazz?

LB: It was my high school band teacher, Bob Rebagliati, who introduced me to jazz. It wasn’t an easy transition. Shortly after I met him, a series of events (including a car accident) led to ongoing troubles with my right arm, and so I couldn’t dig that deep into jazz as a player. Plus, I found the idea of improvisation to be thoroughly intimidating as a classically-trained musician used to following written music. But he fed me CDs from several pianists who combined the worlds of classical and jazz to great effect – Renee Rosnes, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and others.

Slowly but surely, jazz started to make sense and felt like it could become a musical home. Pretty much on a whim, I then decided I would pursue post-secondary Jazz Studies at Humber College in Toronto. I was offered a full scholarship, but because I was still dealing with pain in my arm, they welcomed me as a vocalist. But the real discoveries from that period were composing and arranging. It was during my first year of college that I encountered the music of Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler, which solidified my love and obsession with the sonic capacities of jazz. The possibilities seemed deliciously endless.

LJN: When did you make the move to Toronto – and why? And why DO so many musicians in Canada move East?!

LB: I moved to Toronto in 1998 to attend the Jazz Studies program at Humber College. You’re right that a lot of musicians in Canada ultimately end up there. There are strong jazz communities across the country, of course, but Toronto’s is the largest. Plus, its proximity to New York is surely part of the draw.

LJN: You made albums and one of them was Juno-nominated and one was in the Downbeat annual selection, can you put the facts to that?

LB: Sure! My 2010 release, Tracing Light, was nominated for a JUNO Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2011. And it was my 2012 Live in Concert album that was listed among Downbeat Magazine’s “Best Albums of the Year” in 2013.

LJN: You have quite a few roles in this new album (EPK above). Four… five?

LB: I do. Vocalist, pianist, composer, arranger and co-producer. Technically, I was also the executive producer in that it was up to me to come up with the funds. Thank God for FACTOR and other funding resources in Canada!

LJN: And it seems to have been recorded in quite a few places. What’s the story?

LB: Our little trio of a family moved from Brooklyn to Toronto quite suddenly in September of 2015, but I kept bouncing back and forth between the two cities several times a month for work. Our musical connections have always been strong in both places, so it was very organic to record on both sides of the border. Plus, the strength of the musical voices we wanted on the album superseded geography. We just went where we needed to go to make it happen.

LJN:  Ambrose Akinmusire is on two tracks – how did you get to know him?

LB: Ambrose and I met way back in 2002, when we were both on faculty at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in California. I was 21, and he was still in his late teens, I believe, and already touring with Greg Osby. I was so knocked out by his uniqueness, depth and maturity. What a rarity!

LJN: You have quite a deep affection for jazz – is that fair to say?

LB: It is, indeed. And my love for jazz has grown as I’ve stepped away from the pressures of institutionalized music. I don’t listen to jazz because I’m supposed to; I listen because I want to. It’s such a rich art form, and there’s always something new to discover, even with the timeless records and artists.

LJN:  Listening to the track Refugee, thinking about the danger, the vulnerability of children… was there a specific incident which sparked that or is the subject just generally something unavoidable, something you need to engage with?

LB: I get my global news via the daily BBC Global News podcast. In July of 2015, I heard a particularly harrowing account of a bombing in Syria. There was a young boy, age five, who had sustained head injuries, and the sound of his cries pierced me. As a mother with a five-year-old myself at the time, the grief was deep, and it brought me to the piano where I wrote Refugee.

LJN: You have a radio show – nationally on CBC. When does it go out? How long have you been doing it? What kind of music do you feature?

LB: The show was launched in September of 2017, and it’s called Saturday Night Jazz. The CBC invited me to be the host, which was a great honour. It airs on Radio 2 across the country (Canada) and can be streamed online as well. I have a producer who programs the music, which is a mix of traditional and contemporary Jazz, with a special emphasis on Canadian talent, though we do play music by artists from around the world.

LJN:  Do you think the music you listen to when you put together your show influences your own choices?

LB: If you mean the radio show, my producer, Lauren Hancock, is the one who selects the songs. I do, however, have input, and there is no doubt that I’m influenced by what I’m listening to. But I also seek out music with the purpose of expanding our sound and including artists who are perhaps less mainstream, less familiar to our listeners.

LJN:  Any Canadian musicians or singers whom we NEED to know about?

LB: Larnell Lewis is making huge waves as a drummer, ever since he started recording and touring with Snarky Puppy. His abilities are off the charts! Robi Botos is also a widely celebrated talent, and rightly so. Elizabeth Shepherd and Michelle Willis are two of my personal favourites, as singer-songwriters.

For a range of musicians across generations and including some ex-pats – Renee Rosnes, Seamus Blake, Brad Turner, Phil Dwyer, Guido Basso, Don Thompson, the Hutchinson Andrew Trio, Rubim de Toledo, Jodi Proznick, Rich Brown, Brandi Disterheft, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Christine and Ingrid Jensen, Mike Murley, Eric St. Laurent, Sienna Dahlen, Michael Occhipinti, Jim and Chet Doxas, Tara Davidson, Sonia Johnson, Ernesto Cervini, and of course Jane Bunnett who was just nominated for a GRAMMY. The list goes on and on!

LJN: Getting out the diary now – will there be any concerts in Europe to mark the CD launch? Or festivals in North America already fixed?

LB: We’ll definitely be touring the Canadian summer jazz festival circuit in 2018, and we will also be playing a number of shows across Europe in April, May and into the summer.

LINKS: Laila Biali’s website 
Laila Biali at ACT Music

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