Live review

Laila Biali at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Laila Biali
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, 28 October 2019. Review by Lauren Bush)

Laila Biali is becoming a staple name on the jazz scene in North America and now in Europe too. Since her feature in the London Jazz Festival Voice Gala in 2018, she has won a JUNO for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for her latest self-titled album. For her debut on Monday night at Pizza Express Jazz Club, she brought her trio to perform a collection of songs from shows over the years.

Laila Biali with Guy Barker, George Koller and Ben Wittman (Photo: Anthony Miller)

Biali introduced herself and told stories of her life between songs to help the audience get to know her better. She’s lived in a lot of places and her experiences have definitely fed into her songwriting. She shared Got To Love first, which was an original that captured the vibrancy of her neighbourhood living in Brooklyn, New York. The band brought the character of that neighbourhood and it was only the beginning. With the tone set, Biali introduced a special guest, Guy Barker, whom she had met during the voice gala. We Go featured Barker on a samba style number, where the band fed off each other through the different colours and energies of the song. Laila’s voice also showed off an impressive range and she navigated the acrobatics of her own complex melodies effortlessly. 

Barker stayed up for a standard, Night and Day, with an interesting arrangement where everyone had a blow over the changes. While Biali is not necessarily known for her more straight ahead jazz repertoire, she showed that she was equally talented at this and still managed to give it her own signature flavour. 

Satelite, which won the Canadian Songwriting Competition in 2018, featured bassist George Koller bowing a beautifully curious celestial introduction on the bass. It showcased a different side of Biali’s voice – sweeter but with the same power and meaning. She also featured a selection of songs from the Canadian songbook: a lovely cover of a KD Lang song called Simple; Leonard Cohen’s Show Me the Place, the funkiest rendition of the Neil Young classic Heart of Gold, and of course a Joni Mitchell number, Woodstock, paired with Feist’s Mushaboom. Biali continued to surprise the audience, including classroom instruments like a glockenspiel and some “boomwhackers” to add musical dynamism to her arrangements. 

They played a special instrumental, aptly named Joy, that gave drummer Ben Wittman a chance to show off his percussion skills and unwrapped another layer of this band’s versatility. They also dug up a few arrangements from years past, giving Wittman and Koller a feature on The Best is Yet to Come and Nature Boy. The two must have played these songs many times before but each one, whether a recent addition or not, felt exciting and new.

Laila’s writing style is full of interesting grooves and riffs that thread through most of her arrangements and compositions, and this was prominent in her rendition of Coldplay’s Yellow. She talked about her “request-o-matic” game that she used to feature at gigs where she would do her best to arrange fan-requests. Many of these fan requests turned into staples in her repertoire! 

The evening finished with a British classic, Bowie’s song Let’s Dance, which put the audience into such a trance that they danced out the door with Laila Biali CDs in hand.

3 replies »

  1. Thank you Lauren for that great review. I was not at the show, but I’ve been following the trio’s European tour — from back home here in Toronto — and I know that London, and Pizza Express was a special stop on their tour. As you know, London is a hot-bed of jazz revival these days, broadly driven by amazing jazz youth (Tomorrow’s Warriors, etc.). I know that Laila, George, Ben, (and Guy!) would have lit it up the room as certainly they can. Oh, and they are all fantastic people as well! ‘Best to you Lauren!

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  2. Thank you for reviewing this live show! It’s wonderful to hear what fun was had and what kinds of excitement may be in store for future audiences she performs for on this tour. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Laila in Vancouver and in New York, and was mesmerized and yes, I also danced out with CDs in hand!

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