Canada’s undisputed queen of jazz is the multi-Grammy-winning and multi-Platinum-selling Diana Krall but the 52-year-old singer from Nanaimo now has serious competition in her homeland in the shape of a young Vancouver-born female singer of whom a certain Gordon Sumner – that’s Sting to you and me – described as “an exciting and unique talent,” adding, “I admire her greatly.” And Sting should know, as he’s worked with the young woman in question. Her name is LAILA BIALI and she sings and plays the piano. But that’s where the comparisons with Diana Krall end. Unlike Krall, Laila doesn’t sing standards and instead, prefers to write most of her own material. She does the occasional cover, but, as her new self-titled album on ACT Records reveals, they’re not what you’d expect from a singer who, for the sake of easy categorisation, is usually pigeonholed as jazz singer. But that description patently doesn’t do her justice, especially after you’ve had a listen to her new album. It’s a twelve-song set that reveals 37-year-old Laila Biali as a multi-faceted artist whose singular style defies neat classification and effortlessly straddles jazz and pop.
For Laila, the album is a culmination of what she’s been doing during the last fifteen years. In that time she admits to having explored different roads and contrasting styles but now they’ve all led her to a point where she’s finally discovered her real self in musical terms. “Basically over the course of ten-plus years, I’ve been exploring what my voice is as a musician,” she says, explaining the back-story to her ACT debut. “I was raised a classical pianist but I’ve been singing all my life just for fun, the way that we all do. I started singing a little more seriously later on in my life when I’d injured my right arm. So voice, composition and arranging became really primary voices in terms of my artistic expression because I didn’t have the full capacity of my arms. So that’s how they got mixed in.”
Despite the deeply-ingrained classical music background, Laila has never been afraid to experiment, branch out and try different things, though often she did that in a bid to find her own comfort zone and personal niche. “I continued to bounce around between genres and the focus would shift from original material to cover songs and it was kind of all over the place,” she confesses. Part of the problem behind the unfocused eclecticism of her formative years, she explains, was that she was offered all kinds of ‘advice’ by prominent figures within the music industry as to which course she should follow. “When you’re an emerging artist, especially a female one, there were so many voices coming from the industry side going ‘here’s what you should do, this is the thing that will you make you famous’ or ‘this is what I hear, this is what your best at,'” she says. “And the advice I got was everything from ‘don’t sing’ to ‘just sing’ or ‘don’t play piano’ and ‘just cover other people’s work.’ I was even introduced by producer types to bands. So it was just all over the map. One wanted me to have a super fusion band but it was something that just didn’t feel fully representative of me because I’m not (Japanese keyboardist) Hiromi, who would have fit much better into an ensemble like that. So it was hard to draw these boundaries for myself but eventually I finally arrived to where I am now. But it took 15 years.”
Indeed, it’s taken her five albums to trust her instincts and find her own voice but she feels that she’s now at the point of realising her truest self-expression. “This album is the first to really pull it all together,” she states. “So the singing is there, the piano is there, the arranging is there, and the writing is there. And there are also a few covers, which were all requested by fans.”
The choice of covers – there are three, all radically different – are taken from the worlds of rock and pop. Laila reconfigures Coldplay’s plaintive ballad, ‘Yellow’ – released as a single ahead of the parent album – and makes it her own, as well as recasting Randy Newman’s much-covered 1968 tune, ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,’ as an ethereal hymnal. She closes the album with a sultry, jazz-inflected deconstruction of David Bowie’s ’80s classic, ‘Let’s Dance.’ Each interpretation is respectful to the spirit of the original but offers a different perspective and a fresh musical slant. “They’re all a product of this thing that I started a few years ago, called the ‘Request-omatic’ – it’s a silly name for a fun game I like to play where I ask fans and listeners and concertgoers what songs they want to hear. There is no restriction on genre so, if they want to hear death metal interpreted by a jazz ensemble, that’s what they’re going to get. Very often I get requests for songs that either I have never heard before or once I’ve heard them, I can’t stand them, and I have to figure out how to make it work but there’s always something from the original version that I try to work into my tribute.”
Laila co-produced the album with her husband, drummer Ben Whittman. Stylistically, the 12-song set ranges from energetic gospel-hued pop (‘Got To Love’) to cool, trumpet-flecked jazz grooves (‘We Go’) and heartfelt, haunting ballads (‘Satellite’). “While the album is diverse, it does feel cohesive,” says Laila. “We actually recorded twenty-one songs so we stripped away nine, and chose the twelve that we thought were really of a piece. My husband and I were co-producing but we have the same issue, which is we both are so open to different styles of music and it could go in so many different directions but my manager came into the picture and told us what didn’t work. So he really helped us cull the final twelve.” As for the fate of the leftovers, Laila isn’t yet sure when or if they’ll see light of day but says “I want to parlay them into some future record sounds …or maybe put them out as bonus tracks.”
Laila is understandably proud of the new album – her first for German uber-producer Siggi Loch’s jazz imprint, ACT – and admits there’s a buzz surrounding the record. Does she think that it will be a breakthrough album for her in terms of the rest of world and putting her on the map as a global performer? “That’s a really good question,” she responds. “The short answer is yes, I think it will be a breakthrough album for me. It still fits in the cracks stylistically and so in terms of radio promotion, which is part of the picture, I think it’s a little bit of a harder sell, but at the same time we’re in a period of history musically where in jazz you have artists like Jacob Collier, Becca Stevens, Snarky Puppy, and Esperanza Spalding, who are all creating and sharing music that does not neatly fit into one genre. The way that they’re succeeding is through live performance and, of course, YouTube, and compelling video content. A big part of our strategy is to release representative videos to coincide with various songs from the album that will hopefully make a bit of a splash and reach the kinds of people who are interested in following bands like Snarky Puppy, Esperanza and people who have really developed their presence through YouTube and the online space.”
Though her cover versions are obvious talking points, it is her own compositions that resonate most with this writer. ‘Refugee,’ in particular, stands out: its harrowing story of a displaced person is a reflection – or even an indictment, perhaps – of the troubled times we live in. Regarding her inspiration, Laila says: “I get my news from the BBC and listened to one of their global news podcasts on July 15, 2015 which was a particularly harrowing podcast where they allowed their listeners to hear the sounds in the aftermath of a bomb that had occurred in Syria. And it was just horrible. There was a young boy who had serious head injuries and you could just hear him wailing. He was five and my son at the time was five. It just cut me to the quick and I was sickened and felt totally helpless. I thought, what can I do? How can I respond to this? And I guess as a musician, instinctively I went to the piano right away and just wrote a song from the heart. It wasn’t meant to be politically indicting or divisive or political in any kind of way, it was just describing what I had heard from that emotional place.”
The addition of Blue Note star, Ambrose Akinmusire (pictured above) and his eloquent trumpet, adds a haunting dimension to ‘Refugee.’ Laila reveals that the two have known each other a long time. “I taught him at a Stanford University workshop in 2002 when I was 21 and he was probably 18,” she reveals. “He had just started working with Greg Osby and even then I said to myself, this guy has something really unique, his own voice. And I bookmarked in my mind that I would love to work with him some day but I didn’t know in what capacity. Fast forward to this project, and I knew that trumpet was going to be the primary voice on this record and then it was his voice I wanted for its uniqueness. His sound is so beautiful and palatable but also so strong. It’s difficult to describe: it’s like he’s crying through the instrument. It’s so evocative. It’s not just playing the trumpet – it’s like there’s almost a spirit in the sound. And that’s what we wanted.”
Laila reveals that classical piano music had profound influence on her when she was growing up. “I loved Chopin, who was one of my favourite composers, and I loved Anton Rubinstein, his nocturnes, and I loved (classical pianist) Philippe Entremont playing the music of Ravel,” she reveals. “So I just loved classical music as a kid. That’s what I would go to sleep listening to, and I’d fantasise about myself playing these kinds of songs and sharing them with people and making them feel the same way that the music was making me feel. But also, on the opposite side of the spectrum, I loved Michael Jackson, hip-hop, R&B and soul music. And my sisters were listening to bands like U2 so I got exposed to little bit of rock ‘n’ roll. So it was a real mish-mash of influences.”
Jazz came into Laila’s life later, when she studied music at college. “I discovered the music of (Canadian trumpeter) Kenny Wheeler and (British singer) Norma Winstone, who I just absolutely fell in love with,” she states. “At that point, I actually wanted to be a big band composer and that’s how I started off, writing music for large ensembles. Then I discovered (pianist) Keith Jarrett. I fell in love with his music. I was a classically-trained pianist so his music helped bridge the gap between classical and jazz through me, especially his solo piano stuff. But I also loved his trio, and then Brad Mehldau, Robert Glasper – because I love hip-hop and R&B, and he brought those elements into jazz for me in a way that was really exciting – and then singers like Gretchen Parlato, Gregory Porter, and Esperanza Spalding.”
Ex-Police singer/songwriter, Sting (pictured above), is someone that Laila also admires. The feeling is mutual, apparently, and the young singer enjoyed the experience of working with him in 2009. “He’s wonderful,” she gushes. “I just adore him. He’s such a lovely human being in addition to being a formidable musician. Right from the get-go, we were really thrown into a very intense project together, ‘If On A Winter’s Night,’ where we had rehearsals 10 hours a day. He was the first to show up and the last to leave. He has an extraordinary work ethic. He’s very disciplined and very focused but then, at the same time, he has managed to preserve this real, childlike joyful spirit when it comes to exploring things and playing and trying different things out. He’s very open and so I think that combination of qualities is what has made him who is and what has sustained him through the years. If you want to talk about exploring different genres, my gosh, that man has done everything, it seems.”
Looking beyond her current project and into the future, Laila says that she’s got a special project in mind. “I have to confess I been thinking about holiday records,” she laughs, “but not necessarily the kind that would be me singing ‘Jingle Bells.’ More like something in between what Sting did, finding more obscure winter songs and winter-themed music with a string quartet or big band, perhaps. I still haven’t figured out what it will be. It may not be the next record, though – it may be the record after that.”
In the meantime, there’s plenty of time to get acquainted with ‘Laila Biali,’ an arresting album whose stylish and seamless amalgam of jazz, pop and R&B elements, looks certain to broaden the young singer/songwriter’s audience and establish her as a viable force outside of her native Canada.
LAILA BIALI’S NEW CD ‘LAILA BIALI’ IS RELEASED ON JANUARY 26TH VIA ACT RECORDS.