INTERVIEW/PREVIEW: Laila Biali (two dates at the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival)

Laila Biali
Photo credit and © Rockie Nolan/ ACT Music

In the past ten months since LJN last interviewed Canadian vocalist/pianist Laila Biali (link below), she’s been busy touring her latest, eponymous album around the world. She’s headed to London as part of the London Jazz Fest with a gig on 17 November at the Pheasantry and will also be singing in Jazz Voice. Fellow Canadian, Lauren Bush spent some time chatting with her before another leg of her European tour.

“This is actually album number seven, a reintroduction…” Biali reminded me. Over the years, she has had some really different (and excellent) opportunities that have all built up to this latest record, titled with just her name.

After recording a personal debut and a live recording, Biali was approached by the CBC to record an album called From Sea to Sky, featuring her compositions and arrangements from the great Canadian Songbook. “It really put me on the map as a cover artist…” she said. In her next album, Tracing Light, Biali started to introduce more of her own originals… a mix of her own compositions while still maintaining a typically jazz style. She is a jazz musician through and through and likes to play with the blurred lines of genres.

When House of Many Rooms came to fruition in 2015, Biali had been touring with mainstream artists like Paula Cole, Chris Botti and Sting. “I started to absorb the music I was being exposed to,” Biali said, hearing the music from the pop realm and wanting to integrate it into her compositions, which had previously been mostly instrumental.

“I kept trying to make my songs fit the jazz box… and they just wouldn’t. My husband, who was trained as a jazz musician, had also spent a ton of time working with pop artists and folk artists and rock artists and he was the one who said ‘Listen, you need to not worry about that’.” Now with the freedom to try and write her music the way she had always wanted, House of Many Rooms helped her re-establish herself as an original writer and a lyricist but left jazz fans now craving the Laila Biali that they had come to love.

Enter the new record! “House of Many Rooms…wasn’t the full picture because when we started playing the songs live, I was like, wow, there’s just not a lot of room to stretch and improvise and all the things that I think we as jazz musicians value. It made me realise, woah, I really am at heart, a jazz musician – I always will be.”

Biali felt that keeping the pop sensibility and original songs were important, but that covers are still a big part of her musicality and what she does live. She said there’s a lot more improvisation on this record and “in live performances, we crack these songs open and forms get more expansive, morphing and changing over time which is the nature of jazz”.

It sounds like audiences will get a much more authentic representation of what Laila Biali is all about. Biali continued to talk about how some of the covers on the record ended up there. During previous tours, she developed a fun game called Request-o-Matic where she would take online requests from fans, for songs from any genre to be spontaneously arranged and unveiled at their respective upcoming concert. Because of her personal love of arranging, it was a fun way to connect with fans and keep her on her toes, learning new songs and challenging her creativity to invent something new for listeners. The cover songs Yellow (Coldplay), Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and I Think It’s Going to Rain Today (Randy Newman) all started out as Request-o-Matic songs and became such favourites that the new arrangements have become a permanent fixture on this latest album.

The gig this month at The Pheasantry as part of the London Jazz Festival will be her second occasion to play at this intimate venue. She is looking forward to sharing this European tour with her husband Ben Wittman on drums, for the first time, and to also have bassist Max Luthert playing her music again.

This gig will feature songs from the new album along with some favourites from the Canadian songbook repertoire. “People will get a representative but evolved version of what we recorded on the new album but then they’re also going to get a lot of songs from the Canadian songbook I still include in my set, because that’s been a real staple of who I am. Especially when I go out into the world – I’m so proud of Canada and the amazing songwriters our country has brought. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young are all names that people know – which is fun for the audience because it’s something familiar but they get to hear a new spin.”

Laila Biali will be singing as part of the Jazz Voice Gala, opening the London Jazz Festival at Royal Festival Hall on the 16 November. Tickets for her gig at The Pheasantry can be purchased here

LINKS: Laila Biali at ACT Music

January 2018 Interview

Categories: Feature/Interview

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