Laila Biali brings it all together on new album

CBC Radio host lets the music speak for itself on latest project

Laila Biali, Frankie’s Jazz Club, album release show, Thursday, Feb. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets $20. Reservations are currently full, to be added to the wait list phone 604–688–6368.

Laila Biali wants to forget about boxes and just make music.

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The singer-songwriter’s Twitter bio outlines a similar sentiment, one that promotes tearing down the genre boxes that often confine artists and instead placing emphasis on letting the music speak for itself.

For Biali, who has just embarked on a 36-date North American tour in support of her new album, focusing the songs within a project is important, but limiting oneself to a specific genre doesn’t speak truth to her artistic self.

“If you go to my Twitter page I think it says something like: ‘Forget the boxes, let’s just make some music.’ And for all my career … it always feels like the issue of category is such a big one, but I just need to create the music that’s within,” she tells the North Shore News on the phone from her home in Toronto.

Her new 12-track self-titled album is an expression of that idea, the culmination of a career that spans more than 15 years, several albums, as well as collaborations with noted pop and jazz luminaries such as Sting, Chris Botti and Diana Krall – to name only a few – all in the service of showcasing a singer-songwriter in flux.

“It’s the first project in my opinion that really pulls together all the facets that make up who I am as an artist, as a creator, and combines them together on one project,” she says. “Everything is coexisting happily, all those elements are finally together.”

What does that mean? For Biali it means songs that are piano-driven, soulful – not quite pop, not quite pure jazz – as well as the reintroduction of cover songs into her repertoire after abandoning them on her previous album, House of Many Rooms.

“That’s actually a really important aspect of who I am, especially in live performance,” she notes, citing her frequent Request-O-Matic initiative during live shows where she’ll crowdsource setlists and songs from fans prior to a performance, unveiling her own unique twist on the tune during the performance.

Her new album features tenderly crafted cover songs from the likes of Coldplay, David Bowie and Randy Newman.

Biali’s reverence for covering songs, in addition to her own material, isn’t surprising. She’s a music lover through and through, inspired in the craft early on while growing up in North Vancouver.

As a young Handsworth Secondary student, Biali was inspired by teacher Bob Rebagliati, who led the school’s music program for many years.

“In terms of why I play jazz and how I even ended up in jazz, he is the reason,” Biali says, adding that being introduced to jazz titans such as Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett through Rebagliati opened her up to the idea that she could be a musician one day.

Upon finishing high school Biali received scholarships to attend UBC for sciences. But she favoured carving her own path forward.

“My parents just couldn’t believe it when I chose on a whim to go to Humber College in Ontario for Jazz,” she says with a laugh.

She fully embraced the musician’s life during a tumultuous first year at Humber.

“I was lonely without my family, living on my own … and I remember sitting at this noon-hour concert and Kenny Wheeler just transformed the space,” she says. “It was the most beautiful music I had ever heard … and I think that’s when I really got bit by the bug.”

She now helps people across the country discover the jazz bug for themselves. Besides creating her own music, she has been hosting Saturday Night Jazz on CBC, which is a nationally syndicated show that exposes the country to new and old favourites of the jazz world, since last spring.

When she was first asked to host the show she wasn’t sure she’d have the time to give herself over to the project – Biali is married, with a son, and up until that point she had been solidly toiling away on her self-titled album for several years.

But she found the time to make it work. She persisted, and has since discovered a way to turn those lived experiences and quandaries into art that doesn’t fit into any neat category – or box.

She mentions an original song off her new album called “Satellite” that carries a special meaning regarding touring, her artistic ambitions and love of family.

“That song is about being on the road and about wanting to beam them onto the road with me so I can share these experiences with them,” she says. “The road is where I feel most at home, but it’s not home without my son and my husband.”

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