We caught up with Laila Biali to discuss her forth-coming performance at the renowned Ronnie Scotts Tuesday 3, May 2022.
Hi Laila, great to speak with you! It’s wonderful to get to know your music and your work – we love it! Your career has been intriguing and remarkable throughout the years, from performing as a singer-songwriter and pianist to hosting CBC Music national radio and winning many composition and performance awards.
Laila, it would be amazing to hear how your career began and what were your first steps towards establishing yourself as a singer-songwriter and pianist?
As my mom recalls, I was just 3.5 years old when I climbed up onto the piano bench to sort out the Sesame Street theme – you know the one: “Sunny days keeping the clouds away.” I kept at it by ear until I had figured it out, and it was then that she decided to enrol me in formal piano lessons. I loved studying the classical greats – Bach, Mozart, Chopin. In my teen years, I had dreams of getting into Juilliard and pursuing the concert stage, but an arm injury forced me to switch gears, and that was when I discovered Jazz. It was my high school band teacher, Bob Rebagliati, who introduced me to the music of Renee Rosnes, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and other pianists with strong classical training. Their approach helped bridge the worlds of Classical and Jazz for me.
When I went off to college, I was still struggling with arm pain and restrictions, and that forced me to explore my voice as an arranger, composer and singer. Initially, the singing felt very awkward, and as I stepped out in that capacity, I was met with quite a bit of resistance. It took years for me to push past the sceptics and naysayers, but in the end that only solidified my commitment to singing as a further means of artistic expression and connection to audiences.
Once in my twenties, I was scooped up to tour with more mainstream artists as a keyboardist and backing vocalist – Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, and Sting. My formative experiences with these artists drew me into the world of songwriting. I had generally always considered myself an instrumental composer and, once I started singing, a cover artist. But once I’d observed the impact of Paula, Suzanne and Sting in live performance as they shared deeply personal songs and fascinating narratives, I wanted to see if I might be able to bring something more personal, more vulnerable, to my own music and concerts. As with singing, songwriting came with a healthy dose of trepidation, but it soon became clear to me that writing songs with lyrics was the next important step. I still have a long way to grow, and these days I’m curious about the possibilities of collaboration and co-writing to help facilitate that growth and expand my palette.
The Washington Post, talks of your work as “masterfully mix jazz and pop, bringing virtuosity and unpredictability to songs that are concise and catchy”. How would you say the relationship between jazz and pop work together for you?
I used to see Jazz and Pop as mutually exclusive genres, but more and more those lines have become blurred. Jazz can borrow and learn much from the Pop world, and vice versa. At their best, Pop songs have a clear message and anthemic choruses that become earworms. There’s a simplicity and immediacy to them. By contrast, Jazz is often more about nuance, complexity, spontaneity, extended forms and improvision. In my view, both genres benefit from their mixing, and I think that’s why I love to blend them. You can take a Pop hit and expand the harmonic and rhythmic approach using the language of Jazz. The melody remains recognizable, but you’re bringing it into entirely new territory, presenting it in a fresh way that requires almost compositional rigor. I also see this as a means to mobilize a wider listener base – give the Jazz sceptics something familiar they can latch onto, and then push the boundaries in other ways.
As a professional pianist, you obviously love the instrument. The piano is known for its great tonal range and for giving an artist infinite possibilities in rhythm, timbre, and texture. What is the connection between you and the piano?
My mom was quite a busy body raising four girls (I’m the youngest), always cooking, cleaning, or doing something to support the household. But every now and then she would stop and wander over to the piano to play through some hymns. Something about that space felt powerfully sacred and attractive to me. Music has the capacity to heal, and in my experience, that began with the piano. In that sense, the piano is an instrument of healing to me. It’s also a sandbox orchestra of infinite possibilities melodically, rhythmically, harmonically and timbrally – especially when you get into prepared piano, something I’ve just barely scratched the surface of. Now and then, I do like to get up from the piano and just sing (away from the instrument), but generally, at the piano is where I feel most at home.
You are also well known for your work as a host for the CBC Music national radio. How did your musicianship help in this line of work?
The producer of my show, Saturday Night Jazz, had been following my career as a performer. She came to see my band live and was struck by the storytelling element. A couple of years later I was brought into CBC’s studios in Toronto to essentially audition. (I didn’t realize it at the time as I thought I was just subbing in for my now predecessor.) I was officially brought on as host in the Fall of 2017. My job is to provide context for the songs Lauren, my producer, programs. It’s very natural to speak to what I’m hearing musically, but it’s important our listeners never feel isolated by commentary that might only be understood by other trained musicians. I do a lot of research and look for memorable stories and anecdotes to share that anyone would find interesting, no matter what their background. Everyone should feel welcome as a listener.
As an artist, you travelled a lot – your performance venues are spanning five continents from New York City’s Carnegie Hall to Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.. What is your favourite memory from these overseas performances and would you say performing in foreign countries developed you as an artist?
Undoubtedly one of my most memorable experiences was performing in China at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. If you haven’t seen this venue, I would recommend googling it. It looks like a huge glass spaceship, and it houses several large concert halls within. Our soundcheck was in the middle of the night at around 2:30 am – something none of us in the band had ever experienced. And when it was our turn to perform and the lights in the hall came down, I was shocked by what I saw: almost everyone in the audience was looking at their cell phones – 1500 faces lit up by the devices they were holding. But they were still appreciative of the music and responded wonderfully to our shows. In the days that followed, we were taken out to climb The Great Wall, an experience of a lifetime. I didn’t get very far myself due to my fear of heights, but the photos and stories my bandmates shared were extraordinary. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to travel the world and do what we do.
Along with all the work you’re doing, you’ve also brought together an amazing line-up of artists – George Koller – bass, Ben Wittman – drums, and yourself as a vocalist. How did the creative process work in this music setting and are you all sharing ideas for the music arrangement part?
The arrangements and compositions are mine, but George and Ben’s creative contributions are integral, both on recording and in live performance. From one night to the next, the songs take on a different shape depending on how each member of the group approaches things. There’s a structure to the songs that is largely unchanging, but what each player adds is very open. I think that’s one of the defining qualities of Jazz – you never know what’s going to happen and it keeps us on our toes! And when it comes to sonic palettes, George and Ben are uniquely expansive. George uses a pedal board and advanced techniques on his bass to make it sound like so much more than just a stringed instrument. The same is true of Ben at the drums. He attaches all kinds of auxiliary percussion – pieces he’s collected over decades from around the world – and integrates them into the show in exciting ways, turning the drum kit into a percussion ensemble. It’s wonderful to hear and great fun to watch!
While working with the trio, were there any challenging moments you had to overcome?
I think the travel can occasionally be gruelling, with unexpected delays and other curveballs. We’ve managed to support one another through these twists in plot, and I think we come out even stronger as a touring unit and musical family; but things can feel a little hairy when you’re right in the thick of it all. The pressures can be immense.
Your trio debuts at Ronnie Scott’s Tuesday 3, May 2022 as part of your upcoming European Tour. Could you elaborate on how the European Tour project came along and what countries you are going to visit?
This was originally our Out of Dust album release tour in Europe, which was organized by my German agency, Just Jazz International run by Catherine Mayer. (Her dad, Gerd Mayer, was the first promoter to bring Ella Fitzgerald to Europe.) It was scheduled for April and May of 2020, and for obvious reasons it got delayed. We never imagined it would be delayed this long, but we’re thrilled we were able to salvage most of the original dates booked. The bulk of the tour will be in Germany, including a headlining spot at the jazzahead! conference, with a quick hop over to the UK for our Ronnie Scott’s debut.
Ronnie Scott’s venue has been on your dream venue list for a long time – what is it about this venue that you love so much?
It’s iconic. When you think about the legendary Jazz musicians who have graced the Ronnie Scott’s stage, it truly feels like we’ll be on musically hallowed ground. Like Birdland in NYC, Ronnie’s is London’s premiere Jazz venue, and it pulses with the history of all who have performed there over the decades. I’m honoured to add my name to that list.
What are your plans for the trio? Do you have more tours or projects upcoming in the near future?
We do! Following years of releasing mostly original material, it’s time to put out a few chestnuts. We’ll be heading into the studio immediately before this European tour to capture a few Jazz standards to be released in the coming months. We’re also working on a chamber Jazz Wintersongs project slated for release later this year.
You did some performance and recording work with a well-known and top-notch artist Sting – what was it like working with this highly acclaimed and iconic musician?
Sting is not only one of my favourite musicians, he’s one of my favourite people. Just the other day I reached out to him with a collaboration proposal, and he responded within a day. No matter how busy and how famous, he’s the kind of person who gives others his time and attention. It takes a mighty spirit to be willing to invest in that way, and it speaks to his grace and humanity. He also remains one of the hardest working musicians in the biz. He just keeps striving and pushing forward in his craft. When we were working together on the If on a Winter’s Night DVD, he was the first to arrive at rehearsals and the last to leave. He sets the bar so high in terms of discipline and focus, but always with a spirit of adventure and play. It’s wonderful to be around, and I count myself extremely fortunate to be in his fold.
Going back to your trio, where can people find your performances listed so they could come and hear you live?
And finally, if the opportunity arose what musical genius would you take to the moon? 🙂
Oh, that’s a tough one! Can I take a group??? ☺ If I needed to choose just one, I would start with Bobby McFerrin. He is superlatively talented, a bright spirit, and we would have endless fun vocalizing together and moon walking.