For Laila Biali, it’s all about sharing in the music together: ‘There’s no replacement’
By Brad Barker2023/06/08
It’s always a treat to speak with Laila Biali.
The vocalist, pianist and composer has just returned from a European tour and is gearing up to head out on the road again throughout the summer in support of her ninth album Your Requests.
The new release finds Biali, who’s become widely acclaimed for her original material, returning to the Great American Songbook for the first time in more than 10 years. The shift back to classic jazz repertoire was prompted by her delight in fulfilling the popular song requests of her fans.
Biali joined us to talk about the new album and more.
Nine records… What does that feel like?
It’s a little daunting. Nine is a special number to people who spent time in New York. It’s officially when you become a New Yorker, nine years. The New Yorker once said that’s when it’s official.
So, are you officially a recording artist now that you’ve made nine albums?
Exactly! It’s a big number, but I’m just going to keep recording music. I’m not really counting. I’m just trying to do it at a pace that makes sense for me.
You just got back from a tour that wrapped up at Ronnie Scott’s in London, with [bassist] George Koller and [drummer] Ben Wittman. Tell me about that experience.
It was awesome. It was also terrifying. Kelly Jefferson plays saxophone on the album, and in this trio context, a lot of the soloing was left to me. It’s a muscle I’m not flexing as much these days. I had to find my footing. It took a few gigs. Also, the standards are so iconic and people love them regardless of what kind of setup you give them, but when stacked against my original tunes, there’s so much more I can say about my own material. So I thought, Oh my gosh, am I going to have nothing to say? But it ended up being really complementary, playing a few songs from Your Requests and then an original tune which had this epic story to set it up. They were almost like these wonderful palate cleansers.
Did you come home from that experience with some new chops?
Yes. I was so daunted, and now I feel legitimately quite proud to have flexed that muscle and faced my own little personal demons about where I feel I fall short. And audiences loved it. We got such a great response. Ronnie’s was sold out — for me, that’s a milestone. We sold out of CDs [because] I didn’t have enough with me, so those are good problems to have.
You’re so busy all the time, a lot of people would think that the wear and tear of the road is taking something away from you. But then I look at your Instagram and all the beautiful scenes and settings in Europe, a lot must come back to you as an artist when you get to travel and be in those cultures. Do you come back with a new set of tools and things in your head that come to you when you sit down at the piano?
Absolutely. I’ve always felt that touring is the lifeblood of the music. I know for some people, it’s about being in the woodshed and creating music [that way]. But for me, there’s no replacement for that shared live experience. It’s different from city to city and country to country. How fun to experience that in Germany, and then in France, and then in London. It’s a privilege. I feel like my sense of that only grows as I get older. I don’t take it for granted.
The explanation for Your Requests is kind of in the title. You’ve had a long history of asking audiences to get involved in repertoire. Tell us about the idea behind this and how the latest album came to be.
The [song] you just played [“Bye Bye Blackbird”], it dates back to 2004. I asked people on social media: What do you want to hear us do from the Great American Songbook, and I got 150 requests. Several of them were for “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and little did they know that I already had an arrangement for it from my college days. I dusted it off and brought it into the light of day and made it permanent on a recording. Fast-forward to 2013, the idea then was for the requests to come from non-jazz territory. So, pop songs, rock songs, folk songs, world music, musical theatre, whatever people wanted to hear.
How did those requests come in? They would request it at the show, or it would be in advance of you coming to a city and you’d have it ready to go?
Usually, I need a little bit of notice.
I would think! You’re not a jukebox.
Well, they’re just not going to get much of an arrangement if it’s on the spot. If I know the song, then, as happens with jazz musicians, you can come up with something super fun and spontaneous. But I would say nine times out of 10, the songs that were requested, I would at least kind of know the song. Some I didn’t know at all, like Hall & Oates’ “She’s Gone,” so then I’d need to learn the song and crank out something fresh as quickly as I could. The person who requested the song, it was in advance of whatever show they were going to be at, and then I would unveil the request for everybody present, including the requester.
That person must feel all-powerful. What a feeling of connection with an artist.
I would hope so. I think by and large it is. However, on occasion, the requester has not shown up. And I’m like, are you kidding? Often it was a song I didn’t even really like that much. I spent two or three hours of my life and my creativity on you, and you didn’t even come! But it was still a thrill for the audience, and that’s where the value is.
I guess broadly, the audience really gets a feeling that they’re part of it. The thing about all of these tunes — including these ones on Your Requests — is that you’ve really put the work into reworking them. It’s not just doing the tune, it’s doing a fresh version of the tune. That’s the goal, right?
That’s right — while honouring the writers as much as I can. I know there are some people who revel in turning something completely upside down, to the point where it’s almost unrecognizable. For me, the melody is important. That’s where Kurt Elling can show up and sing his part of the melody without ever actually singing the melody. He can take that liberty because I’ve set the foundation.
You’re talking about some of the guests: Kurt Elling, Anat Cohen, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Grégoire Maret, Caity Gyorgy. That’s a really great list of musicians. Tell me a little bit about the process of getting them involved. Do you write the song and think, “This would be great with Kurt on it,” or is it done and you think, “Hmm, I wonder who we should get”?
Both. I had Emilie-Claire Barlow in mind for “My Favorite Things” before I churned out the arrangement. Caity Gyorgy and I have been in touch for a while and I admire her so much, even though I could be her mom. Who doesn’t admire her? We’ve got a beautiful friendship now, and I thought she would be so perfect on “Pennies From Heaven.” I was sometimes writing an arrangement with somebody in mind, and sometimes I was writing an arrangement and then choosing the person. In fact, I have a confession: For “My Funny Valentine,” I first asked Sting. I knew he sang the song, and I wanted him involved. He said, “No, would love to, but let’s do something else.” He suggested a different tune that wasn’t from the Great American Songbook, and I said OK, well, we have to do that another time. So, who knows when that’ll come to be? But Kurt was on the dream list, and that’s when I approached him.
I saw you mention that this is your fifth “baby” with Ben Wittman, your partner and collaborator. Tell me about his role in everything that happens in your life.
It’s mammoth. It’s integral. More than anyone I’ve ever met, he really allows me to be free and be myself, but then he also helps mould and shape things in a way that’s always respectful and elevates the music. On original projects, I really should be giving him co-writing credits, because I’ll write songs and bring them to him as co-producer, and he’ll tame them, make them better, and offer suggestions. It’s very, very collaborative. I’m so lucky to have him in my life. I sometimes wonder if I should try somebody new and see what might result, because Ben is also very comfortable. But if it ain’t broke…
On the road, to have that sort of ally in the heat of battle with everything that goes on out there, it must be great to have your No. 1 right there alongside you.
It’s everything. I think sometimes he feels how heavily I lean on him. He’s so gracious and so strong. When we’re out there and we’re road warriors side by side, and I’m leaning on him maybe a bit more than he has the energy to support, he’s just so generous that he’ll overextend himself. I have to keep an eye on him as well, because he’s such a giver by nature. It’s why I opt to bring George or Ben or Larnell with me — they’re my musical family — even when it maybe doesn’t make sense fiscally. Because now at 42, I want to have fun every time I get on stage. When you’re in a different city every night and trains and planes are getting cancelled and you don’t have time to eat or shower before you get on stage, and nobody in the audience knows or cares, you want to have that comfort. You lean on one another. You used the word “battle,” and of course music is not antagonistic, but there is an athletic component, a steeliness that you have to bring with you on stage that’s akin to going into battle.