Montana Public Radio

Laila Biali's Virtual Stage Is Her Living Room - For Now

May 28, 2020

Whether she’s playing piano and singing jazzy pop songs onstage, or hosting “Saturday Night Jazz” for the Canadian CBC Music network, exuberance is the hallmark of pianist-songwriter-singer-arranger Laila Biali. The Vancouver, BC native has collaborated with Sting, Chris Botti, Paula Cole and Suzanne Vega, and has headlined festivals and venues across five continents. In May 2020, with the tour supporting her new album “Out of Dust” on hold, she’s collaborating with fellow musicians via video, calling the series of recordings “Quarantunes.”

Biali's accolades include a 2019 JUNO Award for “Vocal Jazz Album of the Year,” “SOCAN Composer of the Year” and “Keyboardist of the Year” at Canada’s National Jazz Awards, a JUNO nomination for her studio recording Tracing Light, and a spot on DownBeat Magazine’s “Best Albums of the Year” list for her follow-up recording, Live in Concert.

But exuberance is no protection from life's tragedies - a timely reminder during the COVID-19 re-arrangement of normal. “Out of Dust is by far the most personal album I have ever made,” says Biali. "After a difficult period in which I experienced immense grief and self-doubt, I felt compelled to share my journey to help inspire others to seek joy amidst pain. My hope is that this album will serve as a reminder that even when life brings you to your knees, there is light to be found within the darkness."

When did Biali start playing piano? Early. "According to my Mom, I climbed up onto the piano bench when I was just over three years of age, and began to plunk out the Sesame Street theme. That was it! She enrolled me in formal piano lessons at four, and by eight I was thoroughly obsessed with classical music. I would listen to cassette tapes every night while going to sleep and dream of playing such rich and elaborate songs at the piano. The music thrilled me. And the thought of thrilling others through music thrilled me even more."

Biali wasn't a fan of jazz when her high school band teacher introduced her to Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, but the form quickly won her over her over. "Slowly but surely, jazz started to make sense and felt like it could become a musical home. Pretty much on a whim, I then decided I would pursue post-secondary Jazz Studies at Humber College in Toronto. But the real discoveries from that period were composing and arranging. It was during my first year of college that I encountered the music of Maria Schneider and Kenny Wheeler, which solidified my love and obsession with the sonic capacities of jazz. The possibilities seemed deliciously endless."

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  5/26/20. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)