Multi award-winning Canadian jazz singer, songwriter, and pianist Laila Biali blends her unique sound from contemporary and jazz standards to pop covers, taking great joy in musical collaboration and sharing music her listeners want to hear. As well as performing and headlining festivals around the world, Laila shares her love for music with millions of listeners as host of Saturday Night Jazz on Canada’s national radio CBC Music.
Amongst multiple awards, Laila’s eponymous album won her a JUNO award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2019. Laila’s talent has been widely recognised by fellow musicians leading to performances and collaborations with Paula Cole, Sting, Dave Brubeck, and Suzanne Vega.
With a background in classical music, Laila’s music spans multiple genres of both original compositions and covers, with her latest album Your Requests covering jazz standards requested by her social media community. This latest release features an exciting array of guest musicians Kurt Elling, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Caity Gyorgy, Anat Cohen, Grégoire Maret, Kelly Jefferson, Michael Davidson, George Koller, Larnell Lewis, Ben Wittman and Maninho Costa.
Ahead of her upcoming European and Canadian tour, we spoke to Laila about her love of touring and sharing music as a gift to others, her latest release Your Requests, and her musical and sonic influences.
You are both a highly regarded artist and popular radio host of a jazz program. Your life is filled with organised sound. Can you give us a glimpse of the sounds you grew up with, not only musical, but in general. Some come from big cities with lots of sounds, others from utter tranquillity. What was the sound of your childhood and early career?
I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in North Vancouver, not far from the mountains and sea. My mom played CBC Radio 2 (now CBC Music, the very channel I host for) day and night from the kitchen radio. Classical music filled the air, and classical piano was my first love. At around the age of eight, I would listen to cassettes – remember those! – of Chopin and other favourite composers while going to sleep at night, imagining myself performing that same material for others. I dreamed of thrilling others the way that music thrilled me. It felt like such a rich gift to be able to listen to and share music.
I’m the youngest of four girls, and my older sisters were more into mainstream artists, but from different eras. Susan, the eldest, loved U2, Michael Jackson, and Top 40. Tania loved Joni Mitchell. Vanessa loved Madonna, Snoop Doggy Dog and rap. What a mix! I accepted all these influences alongside my first musical love – classical music. It wasn’t until my mid-teen years that I was exposed to jazz, and it wasn’t an ‘easy sell’. I began to love ‘pop’ artists who had a richer harmonic and more creative approach, like Radiohead and Björk.
“I dreamed of thrilling others the way that music thrilled me. It felt like such a rich gift to be able to listen to and share music.”
During high school my band teacher, Mr. Rebagliati, introduced me to the music of Chick Corea, Renee Rosnes, and Keith Jarrett. I especially loved Keith because his solo piano concerts had a strong classical feeling to them – a bridge for the worlds of Classical and Jazz. Once I began the pursuit of a jazz degree in college it was Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schneider who continued to bridge the classical-jazz divide. I felt I was beginning to find a harmonic approach that made sense to me as a budding jazz musician. It was less bebop and far more ‘European’ (ECM) influenced – more Keith Jarrett, John Taylor and Jan Garbarek than Coltrane, Bird or Miles.
A European and Canadian tour is about to begin that runs until February next year, and we at Musifée are very excited about seeing you at your show at Bærum Jazz Festival in November. How do you prepare musically and emotionally to go away for a long stretch of time and meet a lot of new audiences?
Truly, touring is my favourite thing to do as a musician. Our work – whether original compositions or arrangements – comes to life from the stage. Audiences become like members of the band, and to me there is nothing that quite compares to the exchange between performers and listeners. It is almost spiritual, and is often a totally different experience from one venue to another and one city to the next. Bærum has a very special place in our hearts. It will be my third time performing there, and the presenters set the most wonderful tone. The vibe now is more one of family, and so we cannot wait to go back for our next reunion! All we need to do is make sure we have our heads and hearts wrapped around the music, our itineraries completed and clear so we don’t need to worry as much about the details, and then have an openness to the moment once we get on stage.
“Truly, touring is my favourite thing to do as a musician. Our work – whether original compositions or arrangements – comes to life from the stage. Audiences become like members of the band, and to me there is nothing that quite compares to the exchange between performers and listeners.”
For your latest album, aptly called Your Requests, you let fans and followers decide the repertoire. How does it feel to lay this decision out there and what sparked this idea?
Whilst many artists do create music for their own pleasure, I am firstly motivated by the people who will ultimately listen to what I create. To keep things fresh and actively engage my community online I thought it would be fun to ask what they would like us to record, with a focus this time on the Great American Songbook. In the past I’ve asked audiences to submit their requests for non-Jazz tunes, which is how we ended up covering Coldplay and David Bowie. It’s strange to say that the canon of jazz standards (early Broadway tunes) was a departure for me; but, in a way, it was. And the familiar songs from Your Requests pair nicely with the reimagined pop songs, Canadian songbook, and my original tunes. It’s a dance between new and ‘old’ live in concert, and audiences seem to enjoy this.
After a string of albums with original material, how has it been returning to exploring standards? Assuming time and experience has changed both you and the perspectives on the material, how do you see Your Requests and the journey from Tracing Light?
It was the right time to dig back into the great canon of jazz standards. Tracing Light, released in 2011, had a mix of standard tunes alongside a few originals. Your Requests made fresh arrangements of the old chestnuts a singular focus, without any original songs, and in that sense it feels like one of my more cohesive recordings (from start to finish). I suppose I was able to approach the arranging process with a bit more maturity, given the years that have passed and all that I’ve learned in life and in music.
“The trio really is an ideal format. There’s just enough room for each of us to stretch out a bit, sharing space and not cluttering it.”
Jazz is one of the most collaborative genres where constellations and collaborations are more fluid. You have collaborated with a long list of very impressive names. What excites you the most when going into a new situation with others? On the upcoming tour, who are the people on stage and how did that constellation come about?
This time I will be touring with my husband, co-producer and drummer Ben Wittman. We will collaborate with local bassists Fabian Timm in Dresden and Munich, Chris Jennings in Paris, and Frode Berg in Bærum. In jazz especially, everyone on stage becomes a co-pilot, steering the direction of the music as one organism with individual parts. Because these bassists will introduce a beautiful element of the unexpected, I can’t wait to see how the music will change. Spontaneity and close listening will be paramount to the success of each show, and I have the sense that these bassists are the perfect fit for that journey of collaborative exploration and discovery.
For a vocalist, do you feel that the number of people on stage impacts your role? A duo format certainly must be different than a quintet?
Absolutely! I used to feel that ‘more was more’ – in other words, the more players the better. Performing solo is still something that intimidates me. Now I appreciate what different configurations inspire in the moment, and how the music and players adapt accordingly. The trio really is an ideal format. There’s just enough room for each of us to stretch out a bit, sharing space and not cluttering it.
“The Banff Centre is my creative home.”
You have a strong connection to the Banff Center. Can you please give us a glimpse into what such a place does for you creatively? Places and context for creating typically has an impact on inspiration and the sounds chosen. Can we hear Banff in your music?
The Banff Centre is my creative home. It’s a multi-disciplinary facility nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta, Canada, and it draws people from across fields – from mathematics and the environment to Indigenous affairs and the arts. They ensure everyone’s needs are properly and easily met with comfortable accommodations, access to nutritious meals, and absolutely gorgeous studios where one can work. You can be as independent as you wish, but there are tons of opportunities to mix and work with other attendees and residents. You never know what might happen! Since 2015, I’ve written the bulk of my original songs while in Banff – whether over 3 days or 2 weeks. Next year, I will release a Wintersongs suite composed from a studio in the woods in November and December of 2021.
Let us widen the area a little. Nordic jazz has a distinct feel to it. Do you feel that there is a hallmark sound that identifies Canadian jazz?
I think many Canadians are influenced equally by Nordic and European jazz such as Jan Garbarek and the ‘ECM sound’, and Black American Music from John Coltrane and Bird to Robert Glasper. I also think many of us feel a real resonance with jazz that seems to flow out of exposure to open and varied landscapes, and the love of nature. It seems to manifest melodic, expansive, and even dreamy sounds. I also think a crossover approach is increasingly common; jazz that mixes with indie pop music, folk, and other genres.
Do you have any projects coming up in the new year which you are particularly excited about?
My Wintersongs full album release, some collaborative large ensemble pursuits, and likely a few more Joni Mitchell covers.