At Laila Biali's concert at the National Arts Centre on February 27, the audience will be able to influence music in the making.

Laila Biali will collaborate with everyone from Sting to Randy Bachman to Marc Jordan on her upcoming album, and will try out some of those songs at her Ottawa concert on February 27 (photo byJulia Hembree)
Laila Biali will collaborate with everyone from Sting to Randy Bachman to Marc Jordan on her upcoming album, and will try out some of those songs at her Ottawa concert on February 27 (photo byJulia Hembree)
The Canadian jazz pianist and vocalist is heading into the studio next month to record a new album, and several of the original songs she's planning to include are still being developed. On her current Ontario/Quebec tour, she's been trying out the new songs, and using audience reaction to fine-tune them.

“I feel like audiences are being invited into a unique time, which I think a lot of artists wouldn't necessarily allow people to observe or experience. Usually they would just really flesh out the songs first whether it's in extended rehearsal time or actually going into the studio and creating demos and really figuring out what works and what doesn't work.”

“We're working it out on the bandstand. And we're OK with that, because that feels exciting and it feels like it's in the spirit of jazz. So that's been both daunting but also really fun – and actually, frankly, very helpful. Very helpful to be experimenting and trying things and seeing what works and what maybe doesn't or isn't as strong.”

When spoke to Biali on February 12, she had just finished playing two consecutive Thursdays with her trio – George Koller on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums – at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto. “A couple people did very specifically say 'We like the new songs',” she said, although “sometimes it's hard to tell”.

Biali said the upcoming record – and the shows on this tour – will be more jazz-oriented than her 2015 release, House of Many Rooms. That CD was a large-scale production with strings and a choir, which she described as more “alt-rock-pop, adult alternative music”. She presented it in Ottawa last May at GigSpace, in a quickly-sold-out show.

A jazzier sound for a smaller ensemble

The new CD will focus “on a small-ensemble sound, something a little bit more intimate, but still diverse” – more like her previous NAC show in 2013.

Its jazz direction is reflected in her choice of musicians for it – both Koller and Lewis are well-known in jazz circles, and she's played with them for years. In fact, she said, Lewis is “very difficult to peg down these days because he tours so much with Snarky Puppy.” For the Ottawa show, however, Koller had a conflict, and Biali will instead be playing with Lewis and Ross MacIntyre, a bassist who has frequently performed with Emilie-Claire Barlow.

The bulk of what they'll perform in Ottawa will be material from the new record, she said, along with a few pieces from House of Many Rooms which can be played by a trio, and material from her previous jazz albums.

Like House of Many Rooms – and unlike previous releases – the focus of the new CD will be material written or co-written by her. Biali has been better known as an arranger of other people's material, but she said that, from the beginning, she has always loved writing music.

“It was a CBC album, From Sea to Sky, that really put me on the map nationally and even internationally to some degree, and so I became known as a cover artist. But I started off as a composer. It was instrumental music, primarily, but writing original music was always such a big piece of my creative expression. It's really great to be getting back to that.”

Collaborating with Sting, Randy Bachman, Ron Sexsmith, Marc Jordan, and Royal Wood

Five of the songs for the new album are ready to go, she said, and the trio has given them a test run at the Jazz Bistro. Others are still being worked on, by her and by her co-writers.

In fact, what sets this new CD apart is her high-powered list of co-writers, mostly not from the jazz realm. They include “some of my favourite singer-songwriters as well as some new folks”: Sting, Ron Sexsmith, Randy Bachman, Royal Wood, and Marc Jordan.

Biali said the process ended up “totally different with each person. I'm not well-versed in co-writing at all, so I had no idea what this would be like, and obviously the creative space is a very personal one, and can feel very vulnerable.”

For Sting – with whom Biali has toured as a featured singer – she's sent a piece that she wrote in 2003 for her octet. “He said he was going to give it a go. He's obviously super-busy: I actually was working with him in New York a couple of weeks ago. He's always on to the next thing, but I know he was interested in collaborating. So we'll see if that materializes.”

For Ron Sexsmith, Biali has resurrected a song from her very first album, and asked him to write stronger lyrics for it. She said she played several pieces for him, and that was the one he really meshed with.

Biali's NAC concert is part of a mini-series within NAC Presents which is being curated by Canadian singer-songwriter Royal Wood. She got together with Wood “in a room in Banff. He had his guitar, I was at a piano, and we just started playing. He's so prolific as a songwriter, that I think for him that they're kind of there already in the air. They just need to be pulled down. So he came up with something very quickly, and I felt a little bit more observing his process and chiming in where I felt I could. And so he essentially came up with the song. I weighed in a little bit and played along, but he was really making the bulk of the decisions.”

She then worked further on her own on the song, she said, making it “a little bit more my own” and writing most of the lyrics based on Woods' initial lyrical concept – and has now sent the song back to him for his approval.

Randy Bachman and Biali got together at his home in Vancouver. “He actually didn't have a piano – he just had his guitars. And he was showing me bits and pieces of songs that have come to him over the past few months, maybe even years – ideas he's been holding on to. He just played them for me, and said, 'What do you think? Here's some lyrics thoughts, here's some titles that I've been turning around in my mind.' And just left me with a scrapbook of raw material. And so I have to go through that and figure out what I can make work. There will be a little more back and forth.”

The most natural fit, she said, was with songwriter Marc Jordan. “I went to his home, and just sat down at his gorgeous grand piano. I just started playing, and he started singing. It was completely free-form initially, but because we're both experienced musicians, we were paying attention, trying to create something with form even though it was very much extemporized. And after just exploring new territory together, we started to really home in on something. It took a couple weeks of back and forth to establish a form, and he came up with a lyric that's a great lyric. Now he's left it with me to add some interesting twists and turns harmonically, or to add a solo section.”

Drawing songs from the fascinating stories around her

Biali said she got most of her ideas for writing lyrics from the world around her: “Life is so rich – and I'm fascinated by the stories that I hear.”

She regularly listens to news programs on BBC and CBC Radio, she said: “the stories that I hear are really what become raw material for a lot of the lyrics that I write.” She is currently writing a song based on a story she heard on As It Happens, about Doo Doo the Clown, who was coming home in full costume after a show and scared off a man trying to attack two women. “To me this was hilarious, and it was just screaming to be written about.”

She said the biggest obstacle in her writing was self-criticism. “There are more judges to contend with when you're writing your own material. There are more weeds I have to hack away. And just silencing those critical voices is for me one of the greatest challenges when it comes to original writing.”

She expected to have some more time to work on the songs before the last two shows on the tour, in Ottawa and Montreal, and said those two dates had “the best chance of having those songs ready”.

Across Canada at jazz festivals in June

Biali is planning to release the CD in June, in time to tour Canadian jazz festivals. She acknowledged this was going to be a fast turnaround for a CD, but “ it is absolutely possible with a jazz record. We're putting a lot of forethought and preparation into it.”

It doesn't yet have a final title. “It has a working title: we've played around with some ideas. But I think that's something I'm probably not ready to give away just yet because it's still taking shape. But as you noted, something that will take shape probably rather quickly!”

She's still waiting for news on touring grants, but said her trio had offers from festivals “across the country. It's the strongest combination of jazz festival tour dates that I've ever been offered in my entire career span. So I'm hoping it works out!”

And Ottawa? She wouldn't confirm, but hinted that it might be included.

Songs she can break open in live performance and have fun

Biali was raised in Vancouver and studied in Toronto, but now lives in New York City with her husband, drummer and producer Ben Wittman, and their five-year-old son: “we say he's our original co-production.” She and Wittman will co-produce the new album, as they did on House of Many Rooms, and she said Wittman will also play drums on some of the tracks.

For this new album, she said, “we don't necessarily want something that sounds like elegant, classy jazz. We want there to be a little bit of an edge to it, something that has a little more attitude.”

“We're trying to find a middle ground between the Radiance Project and my previous jazz records, which are already pop-leaning. We do want it to be a more cohesive and focused sound from top to bottom. ”

“And then we can crack them, break them open in live performance and have fun, and go on some musical adventures in real-time.”

    – Alayne McGregor

On Saturday, February 27, Laila Biali will perform with her trio (Ross MacIntyre and Larnell Lewis) at the NAC Fourth Stage.

Laila Biali's 2016 Ontario / Quebec tour:

  • February 4, 11, 18: Jazz Bistro (Toronto)
  • February 19: Living Arts Centre – Royal Bank Theatre (Mississauga)
  • February 20: Burlington Performing Arts Centre (Burlington)
  • February 26: River Run Centre (Guelph)
  • February 27: National Arts Centre (Ottawa)
  • February 28: Segal Centre (Montreal)

Read's 2013 interview with Biali:  Laila Biali takes risks with choosing and playing music