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Daywalker

 

From Sesame Street to Carnegie Hall

By Jim Dupuis




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Laila Biali
Laila Biali
At just 24, pianist, composer and singer Laila Biali is taking the jazz world by storm. In 2003 she won the CBC Galaxie Prize (rising star award) at the National Jazz Awards. She doubled her output at this year's awards by winning the awards for Keyboardist of the Year and Composer of the Year. Her recently released CD "Introducing the Laila Biali Trio" is her first CD as a leader and is garnering great reviews. This year she has appeared at jazz festivals throughout the country. She has also appeared in Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall and at jazz festivals in Austria, Peru, Finland, France, Spain, Turkey and Washington, DC. As a youngster she received classical piano training starting at age four. Her mother put her in lessons because she could play the theme to Sesame Street on the piano, when she was three years old, although she had not taken a lesson. She worked her way through arguably the best high school (North Vancouver's Handsworth) and then college (Humber in Toronto) musical programs in Canada under luminaries such as Don Thompson. She then received a full grant to study with pianist Fred Hersch in New York. Her classical piano training has provided a solid background for her move to jazz and combined with a natural ear she has all the tools to be a great composer and arranger. It's therefore not surprising that six of the nine songs on her new CD are original compositions. I caught up to an extremely busy Laila Biali on a hot, late afternoon in Toronto via her cell phone, soon after she had won her two most recent National Jazz Awards.

JD: This is 92.5 the X, Jim with Jazz Notes. Today I'm talking to Laili Biali, who just won the National Jazz Awards for Composer of the Year and Keyboardist of the Year. Congratulations Laila. How are you doing?

LB: Thank you. I'm okay considering all these big changes and all the things I've got coming up. I'm obviously very happy as a result, but a bit overwhelmed by how much is going on, now.

JD: It's well deserved and I'm sure you can handle it all. Would you tell our listeners about your music education background. It's quite interesting, from what I've heard.

LB: Absolutely. I started my classical training when I was four. My Mom put me in classical lessons because when I was three and a half I played Sesame Street on the piano without any prior training. Obviously I had perfect pitch. So she put me in piano right away. So I did intense, extensive classical training for about eleven years. I was actually an aspiring concert pianist. That is what I wanted to do. I had an amazing teacher-growing up. Her name is Juanita Ryan, who lives in West Vancouver, so I was really involved in competing and reading all the examinations. I was in ARTP already, when I was twelve and we were looking into international competitions. Then when I was fifteen I started developing arm problems and at that point my dream of being a concert pianist was dashed. I decided to play with the big band and it was kind of fun because I was doing a lot of left hand play because my right hand was still injured. I met Bob Rebligati, who is quite well known in educational circles at Handsworth (High School, North Vancouver). He really introduced me to jazz. I didn't take to it immediately; in part, because of the injury to my arm, which didn't leave me with the same aptitude with the instrument that I would have had previously and also because I was still getting over my lost dream of being a classical musician. It was only when I went to Humber (College, Toronto) in the fall of 1998-and it was really in the fall of 1999 when I started to get into jazz and heard some composers and improvisers that I was able to identify with, because it seemed that their approach was classically based or drawn from classical influences. I'm talking about Keith Jarrett and Kenny Wheeler and Maria Schnieder. Once I heard their music-that coupled with the incredible support of multiple teachers at Humber-which sort of won me over to the music, and that was pretty much it. While my arm was bothering me I discovered composing-a beautiful gift that came from that and how much I loved it. I really got into it and that's really how I found my voice as a pianist ultimately and now I've also been singing for the past year or so.

JD: I guess you ran into Don Thompson at Humber.

LB: Yes. I did work with Don. I would actually say that he is one of the most-if not the most-influential people that I have ever met, so far as my career is concerned, simply because he was so supportive right from the get-go. He saw in me a gift for composition; he saw in me an understanding of music that I guess maybe is very organic. I guess what he thought was special and he really nurtured that and really encouraged me, so I felt that I could do anything. When I was meeting with Don Thompson, a lot of our lessons didn't consist of him showing me things but consisted of conversations about life and about music and not necessarily getting into some of these technical details that are explored and dealt with in institutional settings, but some of the more broad and universal concepts that Don had thought abut all his life as a musician. Things that have definitely helped me in my formative years-and I still feel like I am in those years.

JD: You recently released a CD, Introducing the Laila Biali Trio. Your first CD, I believe?

LB: It's my first CD with that trio. I had previously recorded a CD with a group called Without Words, which is an all female jazz group that still exists, but is on the backburner for now, but Introducing the Laila Biali Trio is my first CD as a leader.

JD: It's refreshing to see a CD released early in one's career with a large number of original compositions. Could you tell us a bit about the composition process?

LB: Oh-sure. I discussed that process recently in a more in-depth manner with other musicians that I know whose composing that I very much admire, because to be completely honest with you I don't use theoretical techniques. I don't use any compositional techniques, per se. My approach is very much auditory aural or ear based, where I'm hearing sounds and I have the technical capacity, and because I have pretty good ears and the ability to capture the sound and very quickly that sound is on my instrument. Then I put those sounds together in such a way that you end up with a composition that makes sense and is cohesive and so much of it just comes from all the broad influences of music that I played and listened to growing up in the classical world and of course more recently a lot of the jazz musicians that I heard, contemporary music that I've really taken to; Don (Thompson) would, of course be an influence, there. Also, Kenny Wheeler, like I mentioned earlier and others, you know that are out there on the scene right now. It's funny, though, some of this concept is of muses and it is sort of-almost spiritual influences that people can have on composing, where it feels like they are participating in an approach that almost has nothing to do with them or they're just the vehicle through which music is being produced; not that I feel that way, but I will be honest that inspiration kind of strikes, then I go to my instrument and so far at least-I've been composing for around five years now-it's a very organic, flowing kind of thing that happens and it's not to say that there are instances where I struggle with what I'm writing and struggle to find whatever it is that I'm looking for-hearing, It just for the most part seems that the music unravels. Then it's done and I usually don't revise or change things extensively. In fact I can only think of two occasions where I changed things. Just because we were performing one piece a lot and I thought, �Well it's time this piece took on a new form to keep it fresh." It's almost like I just decided to change it for that reason. Does any of this make sense?

JD: It makes a lot of sense and it actually leads well into my next question. There seems to be a wonderful spiritual connection, particularly in the songs Flying and Castles.

LB: Oh, sure.

JD: PJ Perry once told me that sometimes when he's playing his sax he's communicating with his �god'. Do you have that feeling sometimes?

LB: Absolutely! No question. Definitely I am a theist. I am a Christian and I believe. When I was asked by the Vancouver Jazz Fest, what inspires me, my answer was: �Creation, our creator and obviously people." The people around me, I see as an integral part of that and it's definitely by belief when I am playing and composing. It's beautiful and in some ways it's even easier to access that place when I'm playing and I guess it makes sense that my own compositions have been created from that place, right? And, it's very easy to remember where this piece came from.

JD: Yes, and it definitely shows in your music.

LB: Ya.

JD: --and I like the liner notes on the CD. It does give a good explanation of the spiritual connection.

LB: Thanks.

JD: Speaking of the CD. Where can our listeners get a copy.

LB: (laughing) That's a very good question. A question I've been asked on numerous occasions. I don't have distribution. It is an independent release-a totally independent venture. I've been approached by different labels, but I haven't actually partnered with anyone yet and at present I am the person you can get the CD from and also whatever stores that I sent copies to-and at this point it's not incredibly extensive simply because I haven't been able to address all that-so the best place to go is my web site, which is lialibiali.com and you go to the purchase section. You can buy directly from the site and it's secure and all that stuff.

JD: That should be no problem for anyone these days and it's called-

LB: Introducing the Laila Biali Trio.

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