Laila Biali on working with "soul sister" Jodi Proznick and superstar Sting

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      When Canadian jazz artists Laila Biali and Jodi Proznick were teenagers the high schools they attended were musical rivals. Singer-pianist Biali's alma mater was Handsworth Secondary in North Van, while bassist Proznick was learning her licks over at Semiahmoo in South Surrey, where her father Dave ran the music program and directed the jazz and concert bands. As Biali tells it on the phone from her current home in Toronto, the school's bands would compete against each other, and that's how she got to know Jodi Proznick's brother Tim, who's now an accomplished drummer. She and Jodi didn't actually connect until well after graduation.

      "Once I started to pursue a career in jazz it didn't take long to become familiar with Jodi as a real staple in the Canadian jazz scene," says Biali, "especially on the West Coast. And I've been so fortunate to collaborate with her. She's just absolutely brilliant, and a beautiful human being. I would say that she and I in many ways are soul sisters, so this is a really special concert for both of us."

      The gig Biali's referring to takes place at the Shadbolt Centre this Thursday (October 21). It's officially a double bill, and the first set will be a performance of Proznick's album, Sun Songs, which Biali was the featured singer on. The album was nominated for a Juno Award back in 2019, in the Vocal Jazz Album of the Year category, and so, coincidentally, was Biali's self-titled album, which ended up winning.

      "I was lucky to take the Juno home," says Biali, "but Jodi's music is so, so beautiful. It's about what she describes as the rising of the sun and the setting of the sun. Her mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers, or dementia, when she had just given birth to her first and only child, so the songs are all about this really beautiful and also bittersweet time of celebration and grieving and a little bit of what felt like the circle of life to Jodi. They're incredibly touching songs that explore a huge range of human emotions."

      After the performance of Sun Songs, Biali will take the stage, accompanied by Proznick on bass, Biali's husband Ben on drums, and trumpeter Chris Davis.

      "We'll be sharing songs from all my albums, as well as the Canadian songbook," says Biali. "I love to cover the music of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. And then there's also a couple of pop hits reimagined." (For the curious Neil Young fans out there, the Shakey tune Baili's doing is "Heart of Gold", the classic track off his 1972 Harvest album. "Kind of the obvious choice, right!" she offers with a laugh.)

      For just over four years now Biali has been hosting a weekly, four-hour national radio show on CBC Music called Saturday Night Jazz. But it's her powerful, expressive vocals that get her most of the attention these days. She says that the singers who've most inspired her over the years aren't necessarily the ones you'd think of after hearing her.

      "It's interesting," she says, "because I do love kind of the warmer singers like Sarah McLachlan and Norah Jones, and I have a bit of a breathier sound myself that perhaps shows some emulation of them. But actually it's singers like Björk and Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin and people who I don't sound like at all who I find endlessly thrilling and inspiring as singers and as performers. They're the ones who really stoked the flames."

      Biali's talents at the mike haven't gone unnoticed by the likes of pop-rock superstar Sting, who she started working with in 2009. She toured with him and sang on a DVD of his, performed with him at the lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree in New York City in 2015, and most recently sang backups on "Captain Bateman", a track from his upcoming album, The Bridge, which is scheduled for release next month.

      Biali wasn't even born when the Police put out their debut album, Outlandos d'Amour, in 1978, so she discovered Sting first, "which is probably sacrilegious to a lot of Police fans," she quips. But after hearing his solo work in the nineties and after that she quickly placed him on her bucket list of artists to work with.

      So, enquiring minds want to know: what's Sting really like?

      "Oh, he's so lovely," gushes Biali. "It's been 11 years since I started working with him, and he's so consistently gracious and kind. He's incredibly ambitious, but there's always a spirit of real fun and play in addition to, like, admirable professionalism. We were rehearsing in Durham [England] when we were preparing for the DVD that we filmed there, and we had like 10-hour-long rehearsals, and he was always the first to show up and the last to leave.

      "So he's got an incredible work ethic," she adds, "but he's just a gem of a guy. He loves his family. And when we got pregnant, my husband and I, I was actually touring a little bit with Sting, and I was really nervous to share the news with him. But when I did he just said, 'How wonderful, wonderful for us all.' And when Josh was born he sent us a little Sting onesie. He's just everything you hope he would be, and more."

      Laila Biali performs on a double bill with Jodi Proznick at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on October 21. In-person tickets are SOLD OUT, but you can purchase livestream tickets here.