Laila Biali (ACT Music)
Released January 26, 2018
Juno Award Winner Vocal Jazz Album of the Year 2019
Pop, jazz, Canada. To see how well these three go together, is not just a matter of looking back into the past. Canadian artists of our time such as Michael Bublé and Diana Krall have followed in the footsteps of legends such as Joni Mitchell. Whereas these genres of music have sometimes been seen as at loggerheads, in the land of the maple leaf they get along together just fine.
Laila Biali, born in Vancouver, has her place in this tradition – and yet she is never just imitating anybody else. The singer-pianist has won several prizes, and not only in her native country. DOWNBEAT magazine included her music in its albums of the year. Spinner magazine admired her ability to bring traditional jazz and contemporary pop together naturally, and to create a compelling blend from them. Her sixth album – which is also her ACT debut, represents the culmination of everything she has done until now.
“I have been in search of my artistic voice ever since my first album,” the classically trained pianist explains. “I have experimented with so many genres. Everything felt right to me, but it never really encompassed the totality of who I am. LAILA BIALI unites all the facets of me as an artist: pianist, singer. arranger, composer, a devotee of jazz and of other genres. With this album I feel I have truly arrived.”
Biali gained her first experience on the
big stage as a backing vocalist for Sting, which was also where she met
several members of her band. She met her drummer – and future husband – Ben
Wittman, however, on tour with Paula Cole. “Ben plays a unique mix of
percussion and drums, she says. “His grooves are deep and rootsy – a perfect
complement to the faster, funky grooves of Larnell
Lewis.” Like trumpeter Mike “Maz” Maher, Lewis is a member of the mega-successful fusion band Snarky Puppy, for whom nothing is musically off-limits.
These three, together with top-flight people such as Lisa Fischer, long-time singer on Rolling-Stones tours, and multi-award-winning jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, form a powerful backing band for Laila Biali’s joyously colourful ACT debut. Sam Yahel, who was organist in the seminal Joshua Redman Elastic Band, completes the illustrious circle of guests on the album.
The spirited “Got To Love” is the entry point into the album, with its funky handclaps and gutsy organ riffs, an ecstatic mood that Biali then tempers with the Latininflected “We Go”. An intense cover version of Coldplay’s “Yellow” is the first of three songs by others which the singer has added into the mix with her own compositions: “I have always enjoyed arranging songs,” says Biali, who now lives with her family in Toronto. “At concerts we have often gone with the flow of what audiences want. Coldplay, Randy Newman and David Bowie were always our favourites.” Newman’s “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” shows Biali’s sensitive, introverted side. Alone at the piano she creates a real tingle factor, while “Let’s Dance” is a remarkable, soulful Bowie cover.
The cheerful, ear-wormish song “Wind” is based on a poem written by the singer decades ago. “I struggled with the lyrics for a long time, they never seemed to fit properly. I even asked Sting to help me! In the end it was some verses by the Persian mystic poet Rumi that enabled me to complete it.” Laila Biali has her own concept of jazz, in which soul, indie-rock, blues and pop all have their place. The album LAILA BIALI is wonderfully catchy, but can’t be pigeonholed into any of the standard mainstream radio formats. There is sophistication, but it eschews the seriousness of high culture. This ACT debut album sparkles with exuberant playfulness and beautifully crafted variety. And the singer´s own verdict: “This album feels like a homecoming.”
1. Got To Love (Laila Biali) 3:14
2. We Go (Laila Biali) 5:17
3. Satellite (Laila Biali) 5:06
4. Yellow (Chris Martin, Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, Will Champion & Andre Benz) 4:43
5. Refugee (Laila Biali) 5:26
6. Dolores Angel (Laila Biali) 4:36
7. Queen Of Hearts (Laila Biali) 4:54
8. Serenbe (Laila Biali) 4:22
9- Code Breaking (Laila Biali) 4:46
10. I Think It’s Going To Rain Today (Randy Newman) 3:38
11 Wind (Rumi Poem) (Laila Biali) 5:22
12 Let’s Dance (David Bowie) 4:46
Laila Biali: vocals, piano, keys
George Koller: bass
Larnell Lewis: drums (01, 02, 04, 08, 09, 11, 12)
Ben Wittman: drums (03, 05, 06, 07), percussion
Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet (03, 05)
Mike “Maz” Maher: trumpet (02, 08, 09, 11)
Sam Yahel: organ (01, 02, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 12)
Glenn Patscha: organ (solo on 02), keys (12)
Lisa Fischer: vocals (01, 02, 05, 06, 07, 08)
Jo Lawry: vocals (all tracks except 09)
Carlos Ricketts: vocals (01, 02, 06, 07)
Recorded March – October, 2016, at Revolution Recording (Toronto), Wittman Productions (Toronto), Mission Sound (Brooklyn), Vibramonk Studios (Brooklyn), Fantasy Studios (San Francisco) & Pod Noise Studio (New York City)
Produced by Ben Wittman & Laila Biali
Mixed by Tim Abraham
Mastered by João Carvalho
Photography by Rockie Nolan
Laila Biali overflows with warmth on her seventh album, Laila Biali, alternating between moments of candle-lit sincerity and shoulder swaying passion. Her career-defining vocals and instrumental chops have long been established in Canadian Jazz realm; likewise, her vital compassion is contagious as a live performer, collaborator, recording artist, and now as the radio host of CBC’s Saturday Night Jazz. The album is a powerful continuation of the jazz-pop fusion she cultivated in 2014 with House of Many Rooms. Laila Biali finds her soaring in the ether between the two genre universes, interconnected by a tender trail of innovative piano figurations.
Biali has always had a knack for making covers that sound better than the originals. Her latest release is no exception. The tradition stems from her signature “request-o-matic” segments, where the audience requests covers from all genres to be played at her concerts. Whoever asked for “Yellow”, might just have some sort of otherworldly musical intuition (if not merely a love for Coldplay). Biali’s trio offers a rendition that’s almost unrecognizable- the harmonies in her transcendental piano intro are surreal and evocative, as though we’re standing, head-tilted in an open field, watching the stars blink against an indigo sky. What is familiar, are the lyrics, which Biali projects with clarity and poignancy.
Her voice is perplexingly apt with the thematic and instrumental intricacies of her deeply heartfelt arrangements and songwriting. On “Wind”, the vocals become part of a magnificent vision, blended into climactic, three-dimensional strokes of piano, trumpet, and drums as she repeats the words “today is such a day”. When it ends, she’s definitely not the only one in awe.
For those who fell in love with her more customary jazz music first, tracks like “Queen of Hearts” boast a hypnotic bass line, kept light by congas and occasionally, organ, for nuance and excitement, as she sings “He’s mine for the first time”.
Laila Biali is mesmeric from start to finish, whether it’s through swing or performing intimacy. Biali is wholly invested in all twelve tracks, where she outwardly yearns and swells, as though everything she feels in the music is buzzing in the world around her. On this album, she’s reached an apex, and has the full, open heart to stay there, indefinitely.
Maureen Chow (Canadian Beats)