Music

Laila Biali sounds off on latest album

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‘There’s something fun about playing with different musicians, because everyone will conceive the music in a slightly different way,” says jazz singer and pianist Laila Biali. “It keeps things fresh for me, and I think there’s an element of excitement for the audience on that level. I think when things are fresh for the band, that translates.”

Biali is discussing her upcoming performance at the Edmonton International Jazz Festival, which will see many of her songs configured to be played as a trio alongside her husband/drummer Ben Wittman and local bassist Kodi Hutchinson.

“We thought it would be fun to go semi-local with the bassist, so Ben and I would be the consistent pieces—and then when we’re in Ontario we’re working with Toronto-based players, and then when we’re in Alberta we’re working with Kodi,” explains Biali, who will also be hosting a talk on Friday at 2:30 pm at the Yardbird Suite. “I’m going to take people through my journey and inspirations and process as an arranger and hopefully get them excited about the possibilities that are out there for hybridizing the worlds of pop and jazz, as well as other styles of music.”

Biali is certainly no stranger to experimenting with other genres. The Juno Award-winner’s latest album, House Of Many Rooms, unabashedly explored a pop side of Biali’s musicality with her first collection of all-original compositions—a departure from her past jazz work that was inspired by her time singing backup for artists like Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega and Sting. But the record wasn’t necessarily meant to be an attempt to bridge the two worlds.

“I think those who knew me as a jazz musician had no other way to contextualize this release than to say, ‘Hey, she’s crossing over.’ House Of Many Rooms is actually a departure,” Biali says, noting she and her husband co-produced the record and knew early on they couldn’t fit it into the “jazz box.” “That’s why we decided to give it a project name [Laila Biali & the Radiance Project], to just sort of delineate it and let it live in and establish its own space.”

Of course, it can be a gamble when an artist releases a record that deviates from the genre they’re known for. Biali admits she felt some trepidation about the album, and some critics weren’t quite ready to release her from the “instrumentalist/composer” classification that had been bestowed upon her.

“When I started singing, that was sort of the first time naysayers really came out and started saying, ‘She’s selling out; she’s following in the footsteps of Diana Krall and she’s going pop,'” Biali recalls with a laugh.

But any criticism hasn’t appeared to deter Biali from further exploration on her forthcoming album—due out either this fall or next spring. Biali describes the yet-untitled record as even more eclectic than House Of Many Rooms, and she hopes to build on some of the headway it made in exposing her music to younger demographics.

“I would say the new record actually does bridge my previous work and House Of Many Rooms. I feel like it really is something that fits neatly in-between,” Biali says, explaining that she did some co-writes with Royal Wood, Ron Sexsmith, Randy Bachman and Mark Jordan. “It’s definitely not traditional jazz—nothing I do is traditional jazz, anyway—but I would say this leans, in terms of the spectrum that jazz spreads itself across, I feel like it’s still more pop-leaning, which we feel really good about. But the harmony, for the real jazz-heads out there, the harmony is definitely at times more challenging, more adventurous, less common song forms in some instances. I feel like we might have finally struck what for us is the perfect balance.”

Fri, Jun 24 (8 pm)
Part of Edmonton International Jazz Festival
Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre

Fri, Jun 24 – Sun, Jul 3
Edmonton International Jazz Festival
edmontonjazz.com

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