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originally published July 2008

Laila Biali

Laila Biali

Vancouver native Laila Biali is among the standout artists attracted to this year’s Jazz Festival to run July 16th – 20th though it’s now known as the Wreckhouse International Jazz and Blues festival. Since its start in 2002, this will be the first year it incorporates blues artists as well as jazz. The Laila Biali Treo is suited by neither label really as Biali shared, she’s coming back to Newfoundland after long supporting tours for Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega supporting of her own album From Sea to Sky.

Have you been to St. John’s before?
Yes!  During my last year of high school our band trip went there and Nova Scotia.  I remember climbing down the coast to stand on the “easternmost tip of [North America].” Something about that was thrilling and stands out to this day.  I also recall looking out onto the Atlantic through mist and fog, being filled with a sense of history and wonder.

What are you looking forward to?
The joyous people!  I grew up in Vancouver and heard that Vancouverites are statistically the most depressed people in Canada and Newfoundlanders are the most joyful!  Not saying I agree, but somebody else apparently had the research to prove it! The delightful accents; one morning we were at a local diner ordering breakfast and our lovely waiter exuberantly repeated our orders.  None of us had a sweet clue what he was saying!  We were shocked at how strong his accent was and embarrassed we weren’t able to better understand! Everyone, including the waiter, had a laugh.

Any nervousness about covering Canadian ‘greats’?
Not particularly, though I felt it was an honour; something to be treated with seriousness and respect.

Who did you learn the most from, recording this album?
That’s a hard one.  I learn from everyone who’s involved with a project.  From the artists whose repertoire I was exploring to incredible musicians and engineers. I think Claire Lawrence, the producer, stood out amongst the rest in terms of his role and the number of things I learned.  He’s an incredibly diverse, experienced professional, who’s been a musician for many years and was the producer for CBC’s jazz beat show.  He’s worked with and produced many of the world’s best artists.  Claire is a very quiet man, almost shy, but bold in vision and very strong in opinions. He works incredibly well with artists, clear and opinionated but sensitive and cooperative.

How did you meet your various band members?
My first encounter with George Koller was at the distillery jazz festival, in 2004 I believe.  He was playing with “the shuffle demons” on one of the outdoor stages.  Something about him seemed mysterious and i was immediately drawn to him and his playing.  Then, during one raucous number he picked up his bass and started screaming.  That’s right. He just stood there and screamed.  The person next to me must have noted my surprised response and explained that George had recently traveled to some exotic jungle in central or South America and studied animal calls.  I don’t know if that was true (and believe it or not i still haven’t asked George himself!), but what i do know is that i have yet to meet as adventurous and experimental a musical spirit.  He’ll do anything!  And yet he never compromises the music.  It’s never the stuff of “circus stage antics.”  he is the real deal. I first heard Larnell Lewis, our drummer, on a demo that a former piano student of mine once brought into a lesson.  I was really impressed with the young man playing the bass, and my student told me it was this young multi-instrumentalist, Larnell. And i mean this guy was really playing the bass.  His pocket was amazing, and at that time he was only in high school.  Within the next couple of years, Larnell graduated and attended Humber College’s jazz program.  That was when word of his prodigious drumming got out.  The crème de la crème at Humber (teachers like Don Thompson) were buzzing about this new young drummer who sounded like Tony Williams.  I’d also heard only rave reviews about his personality.  Stuff like, “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.”  He was on my radar for a couple of years before i finally had the opportunity to work with him on “from sea to sky.”  Now he’s a part of the family, and we’re all just thrilled.

What was your favorite space to perform in and why?
That’s another tough question.  I have to admit that the capitol theatre in Moncton was stunning.  I believe it was, along with the adjoining “empress theatre,” one of the first built in Canada (1922).  The history of the theatre is incredibly colourful.  It was devastated by a fire just four years after it was built.  Once restored, it became a hub for vaudeville entertainment and then a major venue during the silent film era.  It was even left vacant for a relatively lengthy period of time.  Now it is one of our country’s heritage jewels.

What do you think drew you to piano?
According to my mom, it was Sesame Street, the popular kids show in the 80 that drew me to the piano.  The way she tells the story, I was just three and a half years old when I climbed onto the piano bench and plunked out the theme song.  I hadn’t been taught a note of piano yet I was able to play by ear.  She and my father, who had been considering enrolling me in gymnastics classes, quickly changed course and settled on piano lessons.  It was love at first note for me.  Even as a little girl, I’d dream of performing virtuosic concertos for large audiences, as a princess, of course.

Why were you attracted to this style and genre?
To be totally honest, initially it was by default that I got into jazz.  I ran into arm problems as an aspiring concert pianist in my teen years. It had been my dream to go to Juilliard and at the age of 12 I was already playing very demanding ARCT level repertoire.  By the time I hit age 15, all sorts of overuse symptoms had started to pop up, which is strange because, although I was very ambitious, I was never consistent with practicing.  But the arm problems were a very real issue, and eventually I had to stop playing classical music and take a break.  That was when I discovered jazz.  I was in my final years of high school and Mr. Rebagliati, the music teacher at Handsworth Secondary, started turning me onto a few jazz records and had me play in the senior combo.  But it wasn’t until i heard Kenny Wheeler perform at Humber College that I genuinely knew that jazz music was something I wanted to pursue longer term.  His music reminded me of the contemporary and impressionistic classic music I was in love with as a classical pianist.  But then there was this exciting element of improvisation. Suddenly, the gap between classical and jazz was bridged and I knew that I could find my voice here.

What’s the ultimate duet for you?
I would have to say Bobby McFerrin.  His duo record with Chick Corea, play is a desert island record for me.  If you mean another pianist sitting with me at the same piano, I’d say Keith Jarrett.  But I would be the “phantom” duet partner and would just watch him play both of our parts by himself!!  (Doesn’t he have two brains and four hands?? Sure sounds like it!!)

How was touring with Paula Cole?
Amazing.  I have learned so much from Paula, as a musician and a human being. She is one of the most sincere people and artists I’ve ever met.  Absolutely electric on stage. But fiercely smart and talented though she may be, she has such a gentle spirit.  She loves to learn and is always observing and listening.  She is profound.

Are your skills and style self taught or studied?
A combination.  I spent 11 years training very seriously as a classical pianist, who laid a firm foundation technically and harmonically for me as a jazz pianist and composer.  I also certainly learned a great deal while at Humber College as a jazz major, from the teachers and other students.  As a vocalist, I’ve barely studied.  I had a handful of lessons during my years at college.  But I am now studying voice privately in New York City on a more regular basis with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

How did you select the songs for the album?
I borrowed piles of CD’s from my local library, saturated myself with the music of my favourite Canadian songwriters, then chose the songs that would lend themselves to a jazz context and that I connected with the most.

What have your travel experiences been like, various world festivals?
A luxury.  Though the travel gets exhausting and artists often only get to see airports, hotels and venues (as opposed to actual cities). I’ve been blessed to experience such a breadth of culture still while young and one learns how things vary from place to place, stylistically.  Audiences demonstrate appreciation in very different ways, depending on where you are in the world.  It’s been fascinating.

How’ve you found going from Vancouver to Toronto to New York?
Wonderful!  I still bounce back and forth between all 3.  I don’t feel like a travelin’ gal with no home, but one who has 3 beautiful cities to call home.

What can people expect from Laila in the future?
I just moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, NY and feel like I’ve entered an open and somewhat “anonymous” space where I can be free to shake off any pre-conceived notions and labels that have been used to define what I do.  Definitions and categories can be helpful, but I reached a place recently where I started to feel boxed by labels like “jazz pianist and composer who also sings.”  My ideas about audience expectations in accordance with these labels started to colour the creative process.  I found myself trying to come up with songs that would fit within those labels.  I started to obsess over what people were expecting from me and trying to answer to these imagined expectations.  It completely stifled my creativity.  So moving to NYC was the best thing I could do.  After touring with Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega during in 2007 and early 2008, I found myself wanting to move beyond simply writing instrumental original jazz music and arranging songs by other songwriters.  I wanted to find the intersection between the instrumental music i was already hearing and writing and the capacity of lyrics to connect powerfully with the listener. And so, in a sense, i am exploring a season of song-writing.  It’s very different than just arranging other people’s songs or writing instrumental music.  I find it much more demanding.  But the results are so rewarding.  I’m also trying not to think of myself specifically as a “jazz artist.”  Even though jazz is an incredibly open and generous category, it can also feel limiting.  I want to create music that is its own category.  Something distinct.  Something utterly unique.  All of that said, a new recording is definitely in the works.

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