Laila Biali has a natural star quality that is evident in every note she sings and every word she speaks. Recognized early for her musical talents, Biali had to choose between a scholarship to study science or music and lucky for us, the Vancouver native followed her muse to study at Toronto’s Humber College. After seventeen years, Biali has transformed her career in jazz into a Juno Award winning affair as well as a side job as radio broadcaster for CBC Music’s national radio show, Saturday Night Jazz. With the sweeter elements of contemporary pop, the complexity of classical and the spontaneity and energy of jazz, Biali has a style that's truly her own. This weekend, Biali renown as a natural storyteller who won the 2019 Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, brings a special genre defying performance to Hamilton
“I wasn’t necessarily the smartest kid but I worked hard and I loved learning,” ruminates Biali on her early career path. “That particular combination helped me excel in high school and beyond.”
That work ethic seems to have driven Biali’s career. Since graduating Humber in 2002, Biali would move to New York City and perform alongside the likes of Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega. She’d get tapped to sing back up for Sting on a DVD and tour but as a solo artist, Biali has really come into her own with her own inventive approach that starts in jazz but pushes the envelope with broad folk, rock and pop influences exploring music on a whole.
“The tradition of jazz has informed a great deal of what I do and it still is at the heart of my artistic expression especially with regard to elements of spontaneity and improvisation but I’m really drawn to a breadth of genres,” says Biali. “I love Radiohead, Bjork, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen — I could go on and on about the great Canadian songbook. For me, It’s been really satisfying exploring jazz with a cross section of other genres. I coax a lot of these songs into the genre and take advantage of the best of both worlds. You’ve got a beautiful lyric, memorable melody and hooky chorus — which are the raw materials of the song — and you bring to them improvisation and more adventurous rhythmic approach and chords. That’s how I wanted to present jazz to the public where people that might not be fans of the genre are invited in to the experience. It’s the evangelical part of what I do — giving it a friendly face with these songs that people might know and love.”
The most well known musicians in the world usually are able to transcend genre and for Biali breaking out of a jazz box was important for her music. Biali’s self–titled album from 2018 is undoubtedly jazz but with so much more. Covers of Coldplay and David Bowie pepper Biali’s original music for an adventurous listening with a surprise at every turn. With her husband, drummer Ben Wittman and bassist George Koller performing for her trio and with Kadri Voorand and Mihkel Mälgand opening, Laila Biali is excited for a return to Hamilton and poised to offer the show of the year — jazz, pop or otherwise.
“What’s most important to offer is authenticity as an artist,” says Biali. “While I’m a musician, entertaining is a conduit for connecting to people and I love people. I’m not an artist that just shows up with art because it all starts with engagement. To me, it starts and ends with people and I think that gives me an energy and excitement that comes through when we perform live, which hopefully allows more connection with the audience.
“Kadri is flying in from Estonia just for these shows and she’s a wunderkind taking Europe by storm that I like referring to as a jazzy Bjork,” adds Biali. “She’s playful and kind of electric on stage so I cannot wait to play a double bill with her. There are going to be some neat twist and turns and I think it’s going to be a special evening. There will definitely be a re–imagined Canadian Songbook and some other pop covers — of course with our unique spin on some of those songs so there will be some familiarity. We’ll do a lot of my latest record and at some point we’ll do something with Kadri but at this point, I’m not sure what that’ll be but that’s what makes it exciting. Doing the radio show has helped me develop as a performer as well because telling stories is what I do on the radio and in between songs. We are primed and ready for the Hammer. At the end of the day, we want to be sophisticated with our music but we want to give people a good time.” V