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Laila Biali: Out of Dust
by George Graham
(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/18/2020)
Singer-songwriters come in all kinds of musical flavors, from old-fashioned folkies to punk rockers. The most familiar musical format is of the acoustic-guitar wielding artist who strums and sings, and sometimes brings in a band for their recording. But there are a lot of piano-based artists, from Billy Joel to Elton John to Randy Newman to Bruce Hornsby. And some of those piano-types show some jazz influence in their music. This time, we have a pianist and vocalist who approaches the music from a jazz perspective. It’s Canadian artist Laila Biali, whose new release is called Out of Dust. In fact, on most of Ms. Biali’s previous albums, she could be considered a jazz vocalist. The new release takes a decidedly more pop direction, but maintains the general musical sophistication of jazz.
Thirty-nine-year-old Laila Biali, a native of Vancouver, began playing piano at an early age and studied classical piano. She attended the Toronto school known as the Royal Conservatory of Music, where she was attracted to jazz. She released her debut album called Introducing the Laila Biali Trio in 2003, and later moved to New York, where she played piano for artists including Paula Cole and sang backing vocals on a recording by Sting, and toured with Suzanne Vega and Chris Boti. While much of her material has been very much in the jazz vein, she has done some interesting pop-influenced recordings, including a very creative version of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock on her 2011 live album. In 2018, she won a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, for her eponymous recording, her last release.
Now she has come forth with Out of Dust which, with the exception of one song, consists of all original music, and the influences run more toward sophisticated singer-songwriter than jazz. Her co-producer on the album is her husband, drummer Ben Wittman, who has also produced singer-songwriters like Patty Larkin and Lucy Kaplansky. There is a fairly large cast on Out of Dust with various horn players, backing vocalists and a string quartet who appear on various tracks.
Many of the songs were inspired by some turbulence in her life, with the death of a friend to cancer, a family member to suicide, and then Ms. Biali being diagnosed with two auto-immune disorders. So some of the songs have a degree of poignancy to their lyrics, but most ultimately come to an optimistic conclusion. While the jazz influence is apparent in the instrumentation on many of the tracks such as acoustic piano, and a big acoustic bass sound, there are enough pop ingredients to widen the appeal beyond jazzheads,
Opening is a piece called Revival which celebrates the 2017 Women’s March and teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. It takes a kind of Gospel influenced direction, with a great rhythmic groove. <<>>
Taking a more jazzy direction is The Monolith which also features the string quartet. It’s a musically outstanding composition, which maintains an appealingly melodic sound with the kind of compositional details that would keep a jazz fan happy. <<>>
Glass House is one of my favorite pieces on the album with its shifting colors and intricate changing rhythms, in the context of an attractive song. <<>>
Wendy’s Song revolves around a character facing a difficult time, again in a creative jazz-influenced setting. <<>>
Taking a rather different direction is the song Sugar done in a funky groove. The song seems to be literally about sugar, which given the oblique reference to Ms. Biali’s medical problems, might have led to sugar being off limits. <<>>
Another attractive song carries the title Alpha Waves a reference to brain waves generally present during wakeful relaxation. The piece makes good use of the string quartet. <<>>
The album includes a pretty waltz in French called Au Pays de Cocagne which however translates as “in the land of cocaine.” The lyrics were written by Sonia Johnson, a singer-songwriter in her own right. <<>>
The one cover on the album is Take Me to the Alley written by jazz singer Gregory Porter. Though this is some jazz influence, with the sax present, Ms. Biali takes the song in a decidedly more pop direction than Porter’s original version. <<>>
Laila Biali’s new release, Out of Dust, her seventh album, is her most pop-oriented to date, and an altogether fine record that combines Ms. Biali’s excellent vocals, with her jazz sophistication, and some first-rate original compositions featuring articulate lyrics, some based on experience. The arrangements, though sometimes involving a bunch of added musicians, remain thoroughly tasteful, with the extra players providing some nice sonic colors.
Our grade for sound quality comes pretty close to an “A.” The sound is clean and has good depth. Ms. Biali’s vocals sound warm and inviting, and the mix keeps the added musicians and arrangements in perspective.
These days, there are not many vocalists who are equally at home in both the pop and the the legitimate jazz worlds. In that respect, Laila Biali is one of the best.
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