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Laila Biali takes risks with choosing and playing music

Laila Biali (photo by Edith Maybin)

Laila Biali took on an extra challenge for several concerts this month – including her upcoming appearance at the NAC Fourth Stage in Ottawa on Saturday.

The Canadian jazz vocalist and pianist asked her fans to request songs – not necessarily from her existing catalogue – for her to play at the concerts. If they were songs that weren't in her current repertoire, she would arrange them for her trio, with long-time collaborators George Koller on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums.

That's a risk that most musicians would shy away from, but arranging is one of Biali's strengths – along with singing, playing the piano, and composing. She arranges all the music on her albums – including songs which originally started as pop music – and has even arranged material for other projects she's been involved with.

Ottawa jazz fans last heard Biali at the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival, where she was a special guest with Phil Dwyer's Canadian Songbook project, which opened the festival. Dwyer and Biali are frequent collaborators: he appeared on her latest album, Live in Concert [2012].

That album was what OttawaJazzScene.ca's Alayne McGregor first asked Biali about when they talked last week.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I was listening to your Live in Concert album, and a lot of that album really featured Phil Dwyer on sax. I was wondering how you're going to replace him when you're playing those songs without him.

Biali: It's so funny because we usually tour as a trio – so we're actually more accustomed to playing those songs as a trio than with Phil as a guest, although it was a great treat to have him with us. Basically, we distribute the improvising amongst the three of us, so on some songs, Larnell will be the one soloing. On other songs, I'll be soloing on piano or other instruments and George Koller is also featured prominently. So it's fun, in that the trio gets to display its abilities a little bit more.

OJS: What are you going to be playing during the concert in Ottawa?

Biali: It's going to be an interesting mix of songs from existing repertoire and then songs that folks have requested. We're trying something out for the first time. It's called the "Requestomatic", and basically we've been inviting people to submit their requests for the show.

Some folks have come out and requested songs that are from our existing repertoire, but some people have suggested brand-new songs, some I've never even heard of, that I'm going to be arranging for the concert in Ottawa, as well as the concerts in Markham and Hamilton. So it's going to make for a very customized experience for the listeners, especially those who've requested songs. There's only been a couple that have come forward, but nonetheless it keeps it interesting for us and, I think, for the audience.

OJS: What type of songs are they requesting which are not already in your repertoire?

Biali: A huge mix. I've had somebody just coming to our show in Markham [who] requested something that's from music theatre, and by "music theatre" I don't mean the Great American Songbook. I mean: contemporary music theatre, so that's going to be a challenge, I would say.

Then another person, who's coming to our show in Hamilton, requested a song by a band I've never even heard of. I think it's alt-rock/pop – so of course we're not going to play songs as though they're from that genre because we have to give them context within the evening's program, which I think means arranging them in more of a jazz vein. But, of course because they were originally written for other genres, it's just going to give it an interesting hybrid kind of a quality.

Some people have suggested brand-new songs, some I've never even heard of, that I'm going to be arranging for the concert in Ottawa ... So it's going to make for a very customized experience for the listeners, especially those who've requested songs.

OJS: Is that the type of hybrid quality you've been including on your last couple albums?

Biali: I think so. Although it might get even more interesting, just in that I did not select these songs. Generally speaking, I'm looking for certain qualities when searching for songs that will lend themselves well to jazz arrangements, whereas these are songs that folks have just chosen themselves without any conditions that I'm going to have to make work somehow. So it's going to be a challenge, but I think it'll be great fun.

OJS: How much material from your latest Live album is going to be at the concert?

Biali: I would say there'll be a fair bit – only in that the Live album is basically a combination of material from the previous two studio albums, so it combines material from Tracing Light and From Sea to Sky. Generally speaking, in concerts we will feature the music from both those CD's, which is why the Live album sounds as it does. But there is a new song on the Live album as well that I'm sure we'll do, "Show Me the Place" by Leonard Cohen, which was just nominated for a JUNO for Song of the Year.

Then there are going to be these new songs depending on what folks have requested. Somebody actually requested a song from Tracing Light that I pretty much never perform live, and so that will be interesting for me to dig out again and do. It keeps things interesting for the trio as well. It keeps things fresh.

OJS: Why haven't you done that song live?

Biali: You know, I did it live a couple of times when I first wrote the arrangement. But it's one that I have to read – in that it's not really a classical arrangement but I have to play the notes exactly as I've written them in order to pull it off the way that I would like to – and it's not an easy one to memorize. I love to play from memory, just because it's easier to connect with the audience. So now it's a matter, I think, of knowing it well enough that I can have the page there as a security but also be able to look up from it and interact with people as I'm singing and playing.

OJS: I understand that you do all the arrangements for your trio and for your albums?

Biali: Right.

OJS: What kind of challenges do you get when you're looking at a song, and you realize that it's a good song but you want to rearrange it and make it fit more what you and your band want to play?

Biali: So do you mean, for example, if somebody has requested a song that maybe is a little bit more difficult to arrange?

OJS: Yes. What kind of challenges?

Biali: Well, I think one of the greatest challenges in all instances, whether a song's been requested by somebody else or whether I've sourced the song myself, is putting my own spin on the music and making it my own – but at the same time, honouring the original intent of the composer or the writer. I'd say that that is one of the greatest challenges.

It's fun to take music out into left field and essentially restructure it. With some songs, I've done that to the degree where they sound like completely new songs, but I feel like it's always important to preserve what I feel is the kernel of the original vision of the composer, which of course is somewhat of a guess. But there are musical hints, and melodic and harmonic hooks that can point me in the right direction – or maybe even there might be some components that are foundational and that I just rebuild something on that foundation. But yes, I think that's one of the most difficult things: to create something new while preserving the fundamental pieces of what the original writer has created.

OJS: How do you pick material for your albums?

Biali: Well, for me, if there are lyrics, it's important that I believe the message of the song or find it compelling, because I do have to sing it and own the song as if I had written it myself, especially in live performance when you want to connect with the audience. So number one is to buy the message. Then beyond that, I do look for a song that holds some possibilities inherently or innately that I can play with and expand on as an arranger. If I feel like the song really ought to just stay the way that it is, as it was originally written, then there isn't much I can do as an arranger.

So for example, with Sting, who I've had the great pleasure of working with, many of his songs are written in such a way that there's not much I would change or would want to change – even as a jazz musician, because he very often works with jazz players and so his harmony, it almost sounds like it comes from jazz already. So I have to ask myself, "Well, what am I going to do with this to make it different?" I've found with many of his songs there isn't much that I would want to change and I really do look for songs that I can overhaul and really do something new with, even the jazz standards.

It's funny, the jazz standards: many of them, especially those from the American Songbook, are quite simple in their harmonic and melodic approach [so] that I can actually take those songs and change them a fair bit and add new harmony and maybe even play with the rhythmic concept. But I find that more challenging to do with a pop writer like Sting, whose music is already very dense and rich and complex.

OJS: You did work with Sting, singing with him, right?

Biali: You've got it.

OJS: I don't remember seeing that you'd ever actually sung one of his songs on your own yet.

Biali: No, I haven't and the reason I haven't is not from lack of love of his music. It's just simply that his music is so rich already. In fact, I took a song of his that he had performed on his album All This Time called "A Thousand Years" and I'd written it out, I'd written out the chart and I brought it to several shows thinking that we could create something as a band with it. It really is just us playing the song, which of course does sound different than Sting so there is merit to that but generally speaking, when I perform songs that other folks have written I want to do something new and fresh with it rather than just play it.

Instrumental music can be very powerful if people sense that you've captured something interesting. It could be a playfulness that people find entertaining, or the fierceness that is compelling and exciting.

OJS: Do you think that there are some songs that just simply are not suitable for you, that just aren't jazzifiable?

Biali: You know, I'm always up to the challenge but I do think there are songs out there, I'm sure, that would pose great difficulty from an arranging perspective. I don't want to be close-minded, but if somebody came to me with a heavy metal song or a song that primarily is rapped, I'm not sure what I would do. But it's funny, there's a part of me that would be up for the challenge. I shouldn't tempt fate here but as long as I can feel that I can sing or play the song in such a way that something powerful is communicated to the listener, and there's any number of ways to communicate.

That's the beautiful thing: instrumental music can be very powerful if people sense that you've captured something interesting. It could be a playfulness that people find entertaining, or the fierceness that is compelling and exciting. There's so many ways to package a song, for lack of a better word. So I do actually think that, in a way, the sky's the limit, because even if I don't agree with the message of a song, I could strip that away and see what I might create with the band instrumentally rather than having to sing the song.

OJS: The last time people in Ottawa saw you was at the Jazz Festival last June when you were playing with Phil Dwyer, on his Canadian Songbook project. What was that like?

Biali: Oh my goodness, it was such a pleasure. I'm Phil's biggest fan. If we could tour with him, if we could bring him with us everywhere we went, that would of course be a huge delight for me. So when he invited me to join his project, singing these songs that he'd arranged as well as playing them, it was a dream come true and he and I, I'm certain, will continue to collaborate in all sorts of ways in the coming years.

OJS: Was it strange just being a performer and not arranging?

Biali: He was very generous, and he invited me to include a couple of my own arrangements that he played with me as part of the From Sea to Sky project that I did a few years ago, so that was great. I got to do a couple of my own arrangements as well but he's such a fantastic arranger and composer. I have so much admiration for him, not only as a player but in those capacities as well, that for me, it was actually a real treat to be able to sit back and play and sing under his musical direction.

OJS: Were there any songs that you were introduced by the Canadian Songbook project?

Biali: There were a number of songs that were new. "Four Strong Winds": I had never heard of it. Maybe it's a generational thing. The Leonard Cohen song that he chose I'd never heard of and I've listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen. I think most of the songs that he selected I didn't know, with the exception of Joni Mitchell's "A Free Man in Paris".

OJS: What's your plans for future albums? What are you working on now?

Biali: I have a couple of really exciting projects in the works – at least very exciting for me. The first is a more pop/alt-rock, singer-songwriter project that I'm co-producing with my husband, Ben Wittman. This is a project that has been in the works for several years. It includes songs that were written [by me], gosh, I mean, as far back as six years ago. They're all original songs.

They're not jazz songs. They have certainly elements of jazz. I think it would be impossible for me to escape that as a writer and a player and singer. But they are primarily, sonically, more in a pop or rock or folk vein so that's really exciting. It's going to be something very new for my existing jazz listeners. However, we're going to release it under a different name, just so it doesn't create confusion with my jazz audience. I've thought a lot about it and I think that's the best approach. We want to build a new audience and of course we hope there's going to be some crossover, that the folks who embrace this new project will also discover my jazz records and perhaps with enjoy both. But we know that we would be at the risk of isolating some folks if we just released it under my name. I think it could create some confusion so we've made that decision.

What I want to do is create original songs that do have a classic feel but also contemporary treatment – songs that could almost be from the American Songbook but are arranged in a contemporary way.

OJS: When is that coming out?

Biali: It'll come out in the late fall or early winter of this year.

And then I'm also working on a new jazz project that's slated to be recorded next spring. It will probably be released either in the late spring or early summer of next year. That project, it's still very much in the works but what I have decided I want to do, and I've already contacted a few people, is create original songs that do have a classic feel but also contemporary treatment – songs that could almost be from the American Songbook but are arranged in a contemporary way.

I've asked a couple of people who I've worked with over the years to co-write these songs with me. I've asked Marc Jordan, who I've already co-written something with in the past. I've asked Paula Cole, a Grammy award-winning songwriter and performer who's very much a pop singer but she has a great appreciation for jazz and I think is capable of co-writing something that will have a classic sound. Believe it or not, I'm going to ask Sting to co-write something. We've remained in touch and he's been really supportive over the years and so I don't feel shy in asking him. The worst that can happen is he'll say no, but he's been very supportive and has shown respect, it seems, for my work as a solo artist, so I'm hoping that if he has the time he'll do it. I'm going to ask Suzanne Vega if she'll co-write something, and Ron Sexsmith is already co-writing songs with me.

I think it's going to be a really exciting project. I haven't decided yet if I want it to be an intimate context or if I want it to be larger-scale. I have been envisioning the possibility of an orchestra behind me, that I would ask a gentleman named Rob Mathes to arrange. He's actually Sting's main producer, but Rob and I go way back. Before I started working with Sting, he had been working a lot with my husband with his own projects and has asked me a number of times to sing on his projects and he's an absolutely brilliant arranger and music director. He actually directed and arranged music for [President] Obama's inaugural concert years ago, which is how he and Sting met. It just so happens that we're friends, and he's also a supporter of what I do so I've had the thought [of having him] maybe produce that jazz record and even arrange some of the music that I co-write with these various artists, for string orchestra.

OJS: So what do you get out of asking someone to co-write? Does it give you new ideas? Does it give you more impetus? What's the advantage of doing it? Does it just make you more secure about doing it?

Biali: All of the above, absolutely. You called it. I think that it'll expand the possibilities and take me outside of my comfort zone in a way that's very positive, while at the same time, as you mentioned, providing a bit of the security in that these writers are tried and tested and proven, whereas I'm still emerging as a songwriter. When I started performing as a jazz artist years ago, I was primarily known as a writer but with instrumental music, not with lyrics. Lyrics are still a new venture for me. I'm not going to lie: I find them challenging.

Part of the issue is that I have what I think is high taste – so my favourite writers are Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and these are poet laureates. My abilities as a writer are not akin to theirs. I don't have that level of talent but I know good writing, and I do feel that a writer like Sting is on the same level as those writers and a lot of the songwriters I've chosen to cover as an arranger are of that ilk. So in collaborating with Marc Jordan and Ron Sexsmith and Paula Cole, I think it's going to elevate the music. I know that I can offer something that is of a high standard musically speaking but I'm not sure that my abilities as a writer are up to snuff. That's why I think that collaborating is wise. Also, I think it'll make it interesting for the listener and I also think it just is a great story from a publicity perspective.

The first and most profound influencer was no doubt Keith Jarrett. I don't know if it's evidenced by my playing but he was one of the first musicians to bridge the gap between classical and jazz.

OJS: More generally, which jazz singers have influenced you?

Biali: It's so funny when folks ask me my influences, I always cite pop singers so I've mentioned Björk. I've mentioned Joni Mitchell. I mentioned Radiohead. I mentioned Sting. So when I'm asked which jazz singers have influenced me, I have to really think about it. The truth is, when I was in high school, being introduced to jazz for the first time, I was a late bloomer. I was in my mid- to late-teens, which is I would say late for somebody who's decided to make a career out of jazz.

I was introduced to Diana Krall first as a singer. She was the first jazz singer that I encountered and was aware that I was encountering in the jazz genre. I remember actually being so excited by what she did that I decided to steal one of her arrangements and songs for a talent show at our high school. Actually, [jazz bassist] Brandi Disterheft and I are the same age and we went to the same high school. We performed this song together, "Baby Baby All the Time", from her record that she dedicated to Nat King Cole [All for You].

All for You was the first vocal jazz record, so far as I can remember, that I was introduced to and I fell in love with it. I thought she was fantastic. So I think that it's fair to say that Diana Krall has been influential in that she was the first person that really excited me as a jazz singer.

And then when I went to school for jazz at Humber College, I was introduced to Norma Winstone. She's so different. I've never heard her live and I'd love to hear her live. She has worked a fair bit with Don Thompson who, of course, was one of my teachers. Kenny Wheeler became one of my favourite jazz musicians of all time and he still is, as a writer and a composer and as a player, and Norma Winstone sings on his records. His record Music for Large and Small Ensembles is, to this day, one of my desert island favourites, and Norma sings on that. So she became one of my favourites and she's on the other [end of the] spectrum. I mean, her singing is not at all like Diana Krall's.

Then there were the classic singers: Ella Fitzgerald (who doesn't love Ella?), Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday. Abbey Lincoln I really loved, especially young Abbey Lincoln. Even to some degree, Joni Mitchell's treatment of jazz songs I really appreciated when I was introduced to her work with Vince Mendoza, like "Both Sides Now". And Shirley Horn. I liked Blossom Dearie: she was quirky, and when I heard Stacey Kent, she's very cute, but I found her approach to be quite infectious. Then when I heard Carol Welsman and Molly Johnson, who I consider sort of sisters in jazz but also in a way my mentors. I love their approach. And a lot of my contemporaries like Kellylee Evans and Emilie-Claire Barlow and even Jill Barber, who's kind of a, some might not even say is a jazz singer per se. I love that she's very stylized.

OJS: But that's not really you, though. You don't sound particularly stylized when you . . .

Biali: No, but I would say that they have influenced me in one way or another. Emilie-Claire Barlow has influenced me in that she's an electrifying performer and there are things about the way that she performs that I have tried to borrow or have been inspired by. Molly Johnson, the way that she owns a song and her grace as a performer and as a singer and her classic phrasing, those are all things that I would want to, in my own way, capture. So even though I'm different, there are elements of what they do as singers and performers that have influenced me, even if it's not necessarily noticeable. Jill Barber, just how stylized and immediately recognizable she is as a singer. I want to have that as a singer. Does that make sense?

OJS: Yes. So what about jazz pianists? Who has particularly influenced you? That goes further back for you, right?

Biali: That list is long. The first and most profound influencer was no doubt Keith Jarrett. I don't know if it's evidenced by my playing but he was one of the first musicians to bridge the gap between classical and jazz. I was raised a classical pianist and it was, in a way, by default, and I mean no disrespect to the genre when I say this, but it was in a way by default that I ended up a jazz player.

I injured my arm when I was in my teens and was asked by the band teacher at my high school if I would consider playing in the jazz band. I was even using primarily my left hand because my right arm was hurting so much at the time. I had mixed feelings for jazz. But it was Keith Jarrett who first really helped me to make sense of the genre, because he has such a rich background in classical music that it can be heard in his playing. The way that jazz met classical music in his playing was very inspiring to me, and just gave me an entry point as somebody with a very strong classical background.

Renee Rosnes, one of our own, did the same thing. I also was thrilled by her composing. Keith Jarrett is a composer in the sense that he has performed so many of these solo piano concerts where he's spontaneously creating something and improvising, but Renee has composed music through the years that, in a way, have almost become jazz standards themselves that young players are performing and recording. I have the utmost respect for her and I adore her. I had the chance to meet her quite early on in my journey as a jazz pianist so she's been very inspiring in a number of ways.

Certainly also the players that I met when I moved to Toronto to study jazz: Dave Restivo and Brian Dickinson and Don Thompson, David Braid. There's so many pianists. Adrean Farrugia: he's one of my favourites. Actually, he's really influenced by Keith Jarrett.

He and I have really spent a few occasions just going on about our shared love for Keith Jarrett. I remember hearing him: it was my first year at Humber College and I was actually singing because my arm was still injured but I, of course, still felt that I was really a pianist at heart. I remember Adrean coming to Humber College and just jamming with some of the senior players that were at a higher level. I remember just pressing my ear to the door of the room that they were playing in, going, "Who is that pianist?" He was so exciting to me and he did remind me a little bit of Keith. I think that was probably when we first met.

And there are younger pianists in the generation immediately ahead of me that have influenced me, like Brad Mehldau, Geoffrey Keezer. And then what's not to love about Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock? I could just go on. There are young guys like Taylor Eigsti and Aaron Parks. Even though he's gone in a different direction, I love Robert Glasper. In fact, I really connect with Robert's playing because he does venture a little bit outside of jazz and gets into hip-hop, which I think is really fun and I personally love. So the list just goes on and on.

OJS: How did your arm recover?

Biali: Well, it's really interesting. I know that there are more and more proponents out there even within conventional medicine of the mind-body connection, so this idea that what we are feeling and thinking and the emotions that we may have surrounding a certain physical issue can influence the actual physical state of that particular problem. So I spent years grieving and obsessing over the injury. I was in a car accident when I was 15. We got hit, struck from behind on a highway. You can imagine the impact of that. I remember immediately having severe pain in my neck and shoulder, which was radiating down my arm and seemed to be a form of tendinitis.

Then, in addition to that there were a couple of other factors that seemed to exacerbate the injury and created what was, I guess, diagnosed as overuse syndrome – it wasn't that I was this great practicer. I wish I could say that was the case, but it was these other factors that went into it.

Anyway, it was when I stopped worrying so much about it and obsessing, I was obsessed with finding healing and obsessed with being set free from this, finding some sort of magic portion just to get better and seeing all sorts of therapists of every stripe. I just was not improving. It was actually when I stopped spending all sorts of money and time and worrying about it constantly that it finally just improved. I don't remember exactly when. It just sort of disappeared.

Which makes me all the more believer in the mind-body connection, that when I stopped stressing out about it, because we hold stress in our bodies, right? So if I'm thinking about how my arm feels and if it's hurting while I'm playing, there's a good chance that just by virtue of how much attention and focus I'm giving to it, that it's going to be some sort of brain synapse that's happening that maybe even highlights what's going on physically in the arm. Whereas, if I just relax and focus on other things, maybe my body will be more relaxed so that healing is actually given an opportunity to take place. I think that's what happened.

Bob Rebagliati just believed in me. He terrified me but he also made me feel like a superstar, in that he really made me feel that I had promise as a young player – and he pushed me. He pushed me into really uncomfortable territory and I hated him for it but now, looking back, I love him for it and I'm thankful that he did that.

OJS: I interviewed Brandi Disterheft last year. She was talking about you and she also mentioned Bob Rebagliati as a big influence on you. Can you tell me a bit about him, how he got you into jazz?

Biali: Well, he's the gentleman who, when I was at high school with Brandi in North Vancouver, convinced me to join the jazz band. You might find this funny: initially, it was playing in the big band in the percussion section, because there was nowhere else to put me. I came to Handsworth [Secondary School] at the last minute, and so he had already determined who was going to be in this big band. I played piano for him, and he of course recognized that I had talent as a classical player. I didn't know anything about jazz at the time.

So he stuck me in the back of this big band, and I was playing the congas and the shakers and the vibraphone. I remember having a vibraphone solo on "Manteca". Because I didn't know how to improvise, I discovered that the song "Oye Como Va" was based on Manteca, so I stole the "Oye Como Va" solo and superimposed it on Manteca and that was what I was playing because I was terrified of the concept of improvising. I think he said, "Oh, she's onto something."

He recognized that I had ears, even though I thought I was cheating in a way. He recognized that I had ears and he asked me if I wanted to play piano in the jazz combo. I was still nursing this injury of my right arm, but he was the one who, during that final year of high school was feeding me music: Chick Corea, Renee Rosnes of course, because she was a graduate of Handsworth's program as well. She went to the same high school that Brandi and I went to.

He just believed in me. He terrified me but he also made me feel like a superstar, in that he really made me feel that I had promise as a young player – and he pushed me. He pushed me into really uncomfortable territory and I hated him for it but now, looking back, I love him for it and I'm thankful that he did that because it – this is a bit of a cheesy metaphor but just as the mother bird pushes her kids out of the nest and they have to learn how to fly, that's a little bit how I felt with Mr. Rebagliati. He said, "Nope, you've got to do this."

OJS: Are you pushing yourself? Are you still trying to do stuff that you feel a bit scared about?

Biali: That's a very good question. You know, I think as I've gotten older, to be completely honest, I have chosen, whether consciously or subconsciously, to play it, in some ways, a little bit more safe. But a therapist that I was seeing a couple of years ago, she would argue that that's not at all the case. She would often say to me, "Even your personality, I don't understand why you've chosen this profession," because there is inherent risk in what we do as musicians.

On a smaller scale, we never know how a concert's going to turn out. There is always an element of risk. How's the piano going to be? How are my players feeling? Everybody's mood affects how the music is going to be played. Depending on what country we find ourselves, culturally, people from different countries express their appreciation in very different ways. So if we're in Japan – and we don't know that people don't typically yell and scream when they love something, they just clap at length – we might feel that there's not a lot of energy in the room and it might intimidate us.

So, in a way, there's an element of risk there and stepping out, that I think is involved in every single performance, especially when it's a new community. But beyond that, in life and the larger arc of my career, there is enormous risk. This industry and the music business, as you well know, is changing all the time. Even as it seems I'm, to a degree, proven as a young jazz player and definitely gaining some traction, you just never know what the next year is going to bring and it's very challenging. So, in that sense, I am having to, every single day, step out and take risks. Although internally it feels like I'm always trying to find a way to create a little more comfort and stability for myself and for my family for the sake of my child, who needs a mother that's stable.

Talk about getting forced out of the nest! I had to get up in front of audiences of up to 3,000 people in the U.S. singing these songs that Chris Botti recorded with Jill Scott, Paula Cole, and Sting, and I had to sell them as a singer. I was terrified. I did okay.

I really started as a piano player and came to singing a little bit later in my journey, I will say that the turning point for me when I was asked to open for Chris Botti, in Canada, as a solo pianist. I asked myself the question, "Okay, do I want to sing when I do this?"

At the time, I'd started singing a little bit and the jazz community had received my singing with sort of mixed opinions because I think a lot of people were excited by what I was doing as a young player and composer that they were asking the question, "Well, what are you going to do now if you sing? Are you going to be all mainstream now? What's going to happen?" I started singing for a genuine love of singing, not because I was trying to be more commercial or anything like that. I just felt that it was something that I wanted to begin including as part of my performing.

So I made the decision and it was a tough one, it was a risk, to sing and play as I was opening for Chris Botti across Canada. After playing the first show in Victoria, his touring manager walked up to me and said, "Chris wants you to replace his singer." My jaw just hit the ground and I remember saying to him, "Why?" She was this really hotshot, stellar, LA singer that I really admired, who could really belt and fit so beautifully into what he was doing because it's sort of more smooth jazz, almost jazz with a little bit of funk and pop, jazz with a back-beat. And I thought, "How in the world am I going to sing this?"

So sure enough, within a week, I was invited to tour with him as a singer, not even playing piano. Billy Childs, who was one of my idols on piano was playing.

Talk about getting forced out of the nest! I had to get up in front of audiences of up to 3,000 people in the U.S. singing these songs that he recorded with Jill Scott, Paula Cole, [and] Sting, and I had to sell them as a singer. I was terrified. I did okay. I didn't fall on my face but that was the first experience where I realized that if Chris felt that I was capable of getting up and singing with his group, there must be something there in the singing that he connected with that compelled me to want to continue touring with my literal voice, my voice as a singer.

Composer, arranger, pianist, and singer Laila Biali will play the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, March 16, with George Koller on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums.