The many musical worlds of Laila Biali

Laila Biali is at GigSpace Friday night.

Laila Biali has moved through the musical world on the strength of seven albums.

Each one, she said in an interview, “represents a different season in my life as a musician. Each season was impacted by the people I was working with, touring with, collaborating with and with what I was listening to.

“But the industry will grab hold of something” and put you in a box.

“For me, for example, it might have been From Sea to Sky in 2007. I’m still very proud of that album but it put me on the map as a cover artist.”

But, she says, that’s only part of the real story; part of her identity as an artist.

“Trying to mine what that is for me has been a long journey,” said Biali, who started her musical life as a student of classical music.

“We are dynamic creatures as human beings, certainly as creators, as artists. The art is not fixed either.”

“I have always been a writer,” she says. But she was mostly an instrumental writer, a composer and an arranger in the early days of her career.

“That’s how I got my feet wet first in jazz. As a classically trained artist, I was terrified of improvisation then so I wrote things down.”

If you are used to playing music on a page, she said, improvisation is a bit like “learning to speak again and all you can say is Momma and Dada. That feels really embarrassing when you know you have the chops, but the language isn’t there.

She says it was necessary to slow down and pull the ideas from her imagination and put them down on paper.

“That was how I established my voice in jazz.”

She evolved into improvisation but, along the way “I did fall in love with the craft of arranging other people’s music. I discovered the joy of arranging which is not unlike composition. However I’m not a ‘cover’ artist. I will never sound as good as David Bowie performing Let’s Dance so why would I bother imitating that.”

She says another Canadian pianist and singer gave her confidence.

“I was a late bloomer as far as jazz was concerned. I wasn’t heavily exposed to jazz until my late teen years. Diana Krall’s music was first thing that felt really accessible to me and I copped a song off of her All For You record, her Nat King Cole tribute record. It was a blues song called All The Time. I played it for a high school talent showcase. I tried to do my best Diana Krall. I just thought she was the bee’s knees and I still do.

“She is a monster of a musician.” There is a mutual respect between the artists, Biali says, recalling that she opened for Krall in 2005.

There are songs written by Randy Newman, Coldplay and David Bowie, but in the main this well-crafted, intelligent yet accessible new album certainly brings out Biali’s songwriting skill and her eclectic musical tastes from jazz, to blues, to pop. Here’s a taste with the song Got to Love.

Some songs are personal to her, she says.

“I would say, in terms of writing, the album is really about this transitional time. Some of songs were earlier but it really took shape while we were moving from Brooklyn back to Toronto.

“This was back to Toronto for me, but for my husband Ben (Wittman) and son (Joshua) it was a major transition. The album is a tribute to life in both places. It was recorded in both places. The third song, Satellite, while stylistically doesn’t encapsulate the whole record, it is a song about life away from those you love.

“For me the road has become my home. I love the road, it is my happiest place, there is no question about it.” But marriage and a child has affected that.

“Sometimes my son is with me on tour and sometimes my husband is. That song was written after a show in Niagara-on-the-Lake while they were at home in Brooklyn. I was on my own. It was a perfect summer night. It was everything I like about being on the road and the music but the two people I wanted to share it with weren’t there.

“In Satellite I’m trying to beam them into the car with me.”

But Biali is also aware of the world. She listens to the BBC and wrote the song Refugee after a particularly powerful story out of Syria.

“Refugee was written in 2015. … They let us hear this little five year old boy. He had sustained traumatic head injuries and he was wailing. My son was five at the time and it just cut me to the core. I felt really helpless. Here I was, a privileged woman safe in Canada, and I didn’t know how to respond. So I went to the piano and wrote the song right there and then.

“I am a quick writer, but I am a slow editor.” So her husband helps with that.

“He gets into the lyrics with me, the song forms; he gets into everything. He plays drums on a lot of the tracks. He mixes and engineers. I completely trust his perspective.”

Biali is on the road now playing in smaller venues in big cities such as her sold out shows at GigSpace on Friday night.

“We will tour some of the festivals this summer.” But these shows offer an opportunity to get close to the audience and gauge reactions to the music.

“We like to be in these listening rooms. It’s a great chance to get close to people.”

These days part of her life is as the host of a CBC radio show called Saturday Night Jazz. The shows are taped so just before hitting the road she was in the studio “just knocking out shows.”

She likes that she gets to “discover new things.”

When asked about the kinds of artists she’s listening to these days she cites artists she calls hybrids. “They are not just jazz purists. They respect jazz and you can hear evidence of the tradition. But they all colour outside the lines and I love that.

Her list includes Gregory Porter, Esperanza Spalding, Snarky Puppy, and Medeski, Martin and Wood.  In Canada, she loves  Michelle Willis and Larnell Lewis.

“I think we limit ourselves too much when we say music has to be this or a genre has to be this.

“For a long time I felt like people were pitting me against jazz because I wasn’t straight-ahead jazz. I think that doesn’t do the genre justice.

“I think jazz is a generous genre that has always proven itself to be open minded and flexible. … I don’t think that dilutes what jazz is. I think it makes it more exciting.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.