Laila Biali – the new jazz queen in town

Laila Biali.| Photo by Edith Maybin.

According to many reviews, a beautiful voice, dynamic melodies and a high energy seem to capture pianist, lyricist and singer Laila Biali’s music and spirit well.

The multi-talented Vancouver native just won this year’s JUNO award for Vocal Jazz Album of the year, marking a new milestone in her music career. As part of the program for the upcoming TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, she will be performing at Pyatt Hall on June 22.

The spirit of jazz

“I live in Toronto now, but I came from Vancouver. I was living in NYC for eight and a half years. The album that I won the JUNO for – a lot of was written and produced in New York; a lot was inspired by New York,” says Biali.

The self-titled album, released in 2018, is a collection of Biali’s favourites. With a diverse taste in music ranging from classical to pop, Biali’s own style is contemporary and fresh and could encompass both the intricacy of classical music and the energy of pop.

We go out on Monday night/It doesn’t matter if the mood ain’t right/Got my shoes and Hot Tools hair/Feelin’ like we could go anywhere/So let’s go… paint the town bright red,” read the lyrics in We Go, capturing the vibe of a night out in New York but with her own jazzy spin.

“I think it is the spirit of jazz; there is an element of spontaneity and improvisation and freshness. It comes from the band, with the song that hopefully would lead to creativity, experimentation and play. I love the collective spirit of it,” she says, regarding Jazz as a genre “Sometimes things go in a different direction… [jazz] is an adventurous form of music; I am fundamentally an adventurous kind of person. It is almost like I get to travel with the songs – it is hugely gratifying to me.”

The musician’s journey

Biali’s musical adventure started early, despite the fact that neither of her parents were trained musicians. According to her anecdote, at three and a half years old, she tried to play the Sesame Street theme song she heard from television on the family’s piano and her mother realized she had a musical ear and subsequently enrolled her in piano.

In her teenage years, Biali nearly went on to pursue science on a University of British Columbia (UBC) scholarship, but in the end decided to follow her love for music to study jazz at Humber College, also on a scholarship.

After releasing her first album in 2005 and opening for Diana Krall the same year, Biali became a music force of her own might. She collaborated with Sting over the years after being chosen to sing with his band in 2009. Garnering multiple awards, she has performed live at prestigious jazz venues all over the world, as well delivering a memorable performance at the TED conference in 2016.

Balancing life and art

Biali is the host of a weekly radio show, Saturday Night Jazz on CBC Music, on top of being the mother of a nine-year-old.

Trying her best to maintain a good work-life balance, Biali is still creating, currently working on her next album, with singles expected to be rolled out in the fall and the album launched early next year.

“I will go to Banff Centre, where they have huts for musicians with pianos. I was there in January for six days and I wrote most of the new album. At home with all the demands of daily life, it is difficult to carve out the time and mental space to work on the songs; I grab these little tidbits and threads of ideas and I sew them together when I am on a writing retreat,” she says.

Biali says the next album will be a highly personal one, exploring the theme of healing and overcoming hardships.

“I am dedicating the album to Wendy, who passed away last summer. She succumbed to kidney cancer – she was one of my best friends, always supported me. She is such an inspiring person. I felt a great loss and [now have] a big hole in my life. The songs will still have energy, but they all explore the concept of healing and overcoming challenges in our lives,” she says.


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