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Photo from Laila Biali's website.

Pianist Laila Biali on her desert island music picks & more

By John McDonald on June 27, 2016

Award-winning pianist, vocalist, and songwriter Laila Biali has presented her music at prestigious venues spanning five continents, including the North Sea Jazz Festival, Tokyo’s Cotton Club, Peru’s El Festival Internacional de Lima and New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

She received a JUNO nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album of the Year in 2011, and her Live in Concert was named one of the Best Albums of 2013 by DownBeat Magazine.

Laila’s latest album, House of Many Rooms, is a departure from her jazz records. She ventures into more pop-orientated territory, full of catchy hooks, sweet melodies and anthemic musical arrangements. It has been well received, with Michael J. Warner of Exclaim! rating it 9/10.

Biali spoke with Apt613 ahead of her Saturday appearance on the Main Stage at Confederation Park as part of this year’s Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Apt613: You developed an interest in jazz in your late teens. How was that interest sparked? Who were you listening to?

Biali: Well, I was basically “pushed” into jazz by my high school band instructor, Mr. Rebagliati. Classical music was my first love, and so he introduced me to the music of jazz pianists and composers who shared that classical background – Chick Corea, Renee Rosnes and Keith Jarrett, to name a few. I loved their approach, but it wasn’t until I heard [the late Canadian composer and musician] Kenny Wheeler perform live at Humber College that I was truly won over to the genre. That was a significant turning point.

When I think of jazz pianists, I immediately think of Keith Jarrett – his trio, but also his solo improvisation concerts and recordings.

Some jazz musicians live for improvisation, while others are not so keen. What are your thoughts?

I was recently asked what music I would take to a deserted island if given the choice of one thing, and I said, without hesitation, that it would be Keith Jarrett’s Vienna Concert, which is a series of solo piano improvisations. He taps into something other-worldly as an improvisor. He’s incredibly cerebral, but I feel his playing is more visceral than thought-driven, which is why it’s so healing and cathartic.

There are improvisers who are all about playing “the right notes,” and there are improvisers whose focus is expressing and communicating a feeling – it comes from the soul. I’m impressed by high-level intelligent improvising, but I’m only moved if there is an emotional aspect.

I realized recently that I seem to gravitate to trios when I listen to jazz. Red Garland Trio, Oscar Peterson Trio, Gogo Penguin, Vestbo Trio. The Bad Plus, Medeski Martin & Wood, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. Do you find there’s something special about the chemistry of a trio when playing jazz?

Yes, I agree. The trio seems to have grown into its own organism and instrument, where the collective sound is what becomes most distinctive – the sum of its parts. And three does seem to be a magic number, there are enough players to keep things highly interactive and layered without much risk of the music getting overly cluttered.

Who do you listen to at the moment?

At the moment, I must admit I listen to podcasts more than I do music. That said, our 6-year-old son seizes every possible opportunity for an impromptu dance party, which usually features a slew of pop stars from Katy Perry to Sara Bareilles.

In terms of current inspirations for our new album, they include D’Angelo, Gretchen Parlato, Melody Gardot, Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Gregory Porter, and Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Your House of Many Rooms is well named – the songs being diverse. Shadowlands with its horns and choir. Wait for Me really spotlights your voice with the strings. You are very theatrical: the very powerful “Upside Down”, and the touching “Shine”. It must have been a joy to write and record such a range of songs.

This album, the first co-production with my husband Ben Wittman, took shape over the course of years, in the cracks and crevices of life on the road and parenthood.

Because it was such a long-arc process, we were able to keep expanding and refining our artistic vision for the project, which is what the diversity and more “epic” production can be attributed to.

I’m more proud of this album than anything I’ve ever released. That said, I’m even more excited about our new work.

You’ve just released a video for “Love” from the album. That’s a very catchy song – the type that if you hear it in the morning, you’ll be singing it all day.

This song was written as a tribute to my dear friends Mat and Corinne, whose wedding I had to miss while I was on tour with Suzanne Vega. As touring musicians, we often miss milestone events, which is the downside of life on the road. This was my way of capturing and celebrating their special day based on pictures I’d seen, stories I’d heard, and what I’d observed during their courtship and, later, married life.

The video is the brainchild of my brilliant friend and photographer Edith Maybin. She has an imagination and creative boldness that can turn average situations and objects into a Wonka-esque fantasy world, and for this video flowers were her muse, treated in myriad strange and wonderful ways. It’s colourful, whimsical, weird, and fun. People can check it out on my YouTube channel.

You’re currently on tour with your jazz trio. How has it been so far?

It’s an adventure! We have our son, Josh, with us, which is fantastic but full, as you can imagine. We are especially looking forward to opening for my long-time musical idol, Sarah McLachlan, on one of my favourite stages anywhere.

For more on Laila Biali, check out her website or find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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