She’s acclaimed in her native Canada for her covers of jazz classics but she’s sung pop with Sting and adapted rock hits too, so what sort of show will the award-winning singer-pianist bring to London in May? John Bungey finds out:
You’re a musician basking in the glitz at your country’s version of the Grammy awards ceremony. You’ve got an album in the running for a top jazz gong. The only trouble is you are up against Diana Krall – who has made an album with some guy called Tony Bennett. Such star-studded competition (two icons for the price of one) and possibly a check on the bookies’ odds mean you haven’t even planned an acceptance speech. At the last minute your friend advises you to make some notes on your phone, which you then forget to bring to the stage when – to your astonishment – your name is called.
Such was the fate of Laila Biali at the Canadian Juno Awards in 2019. “I was dumbfounded. I was so shocked. I just had to wing it, which maybe is the best way,” she says with a chuckle. The award of Vocal Jazz Album of the Year for her self-titled seventh album propelled her to centre stage in the country’s jazz scene.
But Biali’s career, which brings her to Ronnie Scott’s on May 3, has defied the expected pathway of a piano-playing singer of jazz both before that awards night – and since. The musician, with a German mother and Egyptian father, grew up in Vancouver with dreams of becoming a concert pianist until an arm injury forced a left turn. At school she sang Diana Krall’s version of Baby Baby All The Time at a talent show “and that was my introduction to the jazz world… But fast-forward to my early twenties and in the early part of my career I was out there more as a composer. I was inspired by Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler and I was writing for big bands. I wanted to be a large ensemble composer.”
The singing only came later as she performed with her own small groups. Listen to Live in Concert, say, from 2011, and you hear how she became a hugely skilled interpreter of standards. But there’s a pop side too – her covers of Coldplay’s Yellow and Bowie’s Let’s Dance have become audience favourites. Her voice also led to backing work with Sting, Suzanne Vega and more. Her own latest album, Out of Dust, and the Juno-winning predecessor both have a pop-friendly sheen.
So what musical vision will she unveil when her trio interrupts a string of German dates to play London? Biali laughs and says she doesn’t have a pat answer: “I would call it accessible, dynamic, piano-driven, jazz-inspired music. It’s original music. It’s arrangements of pop hits. It’s arrangements of jazz standards and Canadian standards. So it’s all in there and everything co-exists quite happily, especially live.”
Of the pop-leaning tunes from Out of Dust, she says: “In concert the presentation is much more organic and spontaneous and it’s been fun for us to realise these songs live. One song we’ll have to do is Gregory Porter’s Take Me to the Alley, which was a last-minute addition to the album. I arranged that the night before we went into the studio because I thought we needed a little more content and have been really pleased at how people have taken to it.”
Biali loves the jazz of the standards era – and plans to record some vintage favourites this year to put out as singles – but acknowledges that music has to move on. “What is jazz? Well that’s a huge conversation. But where some people see limitations I see an opportunity. I look to artists like Jacob Collier and Snarky Puppy, Esperanza Spalding, Becca Stevens, Robert Glasper – even Brad Mehldau’s latest. These are artists who are not divorcing themselves from jazz. They’re honouring their legacy as jazz musicians and they’re bringing it into new and exciting territories. They are less concerned with the definition of jazz than with the spirit of jazz.”
It’s going to be a full year as the trio take to the road after the great Covid shutdown. On drums is the singer’s husband and co-producer, Ben Wittman, and their 11-year-old son, Josh, will be along for the European ride. There’s a chance too that she may be recording with an old vocal partner. Biali has exchanged emails with none other than Sting “and he says he’s open to the possibility of collaborating”. In any event there will be a new album to be devised and recorded – and maybe, for 2023, she should be thinking about that acceptance speech. Just in case.
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