Laila Biali is living the jazz dream
It’s been a couple years since we last caught up with Vancouver native Laila Biali, who moved to New York City in search of every jazzer’s dream. Since leaving B.C., the accomplished, classically trained, and multiply awarded singer-pianist got married—to U.S. drummer Ben Wittman—had a baby, and did a hell of a lot of touring and recording.
Her album of Canadian songs done improv-style, From Sea to Sky, brought her (and composers like Bruce Cockburn and Ron Sexsmith) to new audiences all over. She followed that with Tracing Light, a CD emphasizing her own compositions.
Biali’s brand-new release, called Live in Concert, reflects her ever-expanding repertoire. Recorded at CBC’s spiffy Glenn Gould Studio, in Toronto, the album offers much of her trio material, emphasizing her explosive (often barefoot) pianism—which sometimes recalls Keith Jarrett’s classicism—plus interesting additions. Phil Dwyer’s impassioned saxophone enlivens “One Note Samba” and “Stolen Land”, bassist George Koller plays sitar on “Nature Boy”, and drummer Larnell Lewis and percussionist Wittman drive a funky version of “The Best Is Yet to Come”. Other highlights include “Still the One”, composed with like-minded Canadian Marc Jordan, and a gorgeous choral treatment of her own “Let Go”.
“That’s the audience singing along,” asserts Biali, on the line from her Brooklyn home. “I taught them that on the spot.”
She likewise taught herself to play the ukulele for a nifty reinvention of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”.
“It’s the only thing I can play on that instrument,” she says with a laugh. The large-haired leader plays piano and glockenspiel on “Show Me the Place”. But it’s just her soaring soprano voice supported by Koller’s upright bass on the show-stopping “I’ll Never Smile Again”.
“Some people prefer the polish of a studio recording. But many fans seem to enjoy seeing how the songs I perform have evolved over time. Actually, I have an earlier live album, recorded by CBC in Vancouver, and both were just happy accidents. This time, we had them record simply because we were shooting video there, and it turned into an unusually special show.”
(Apparently, Dwyer kept skipping rehearsals to study for his LSAT—because one of our all-time West Coast sax greats is heading to law school!)
Biali is developing two new records, with one potentially offering songs co-written with Jordan, Ron Sexmith, Paula Cole, and Sting. But first she’s taking her current show on the road again. Her trio is hitting Los Angeles before making Canada Council-supported stops in Banff, Revelstoke, Enderby, and other burgs that don’t always get the better jazz acts.
“Playing small communities is one of my favourite things to do. People come out for the event, and you win new friends who didn’t even know they liked jazz. One of the best shows we ever did was at an old brothel called Bombay Peggy’s in Dawson City, in the Yukon.”
This is all by way of a buildup to her hometown gig, for which she’ll be accompanied by drummer Julian MacDonough and Adam Thomas on bass and vocals. That will take place at the Cellar on October 3, which also happens to be her 32nd birthday.
“We originally had booked a larger hall, but I wanted something more intimate and party-like so I could catch up with all my old Vancouver friends,” she says.