Jazz interview with a bad musician, as if pianist and vocalist Laila Biali. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Laila Biali: – I grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia. We had a piano in our home which my mom would play casually – church hymns, Christmas carols, and that sort of thing. She was a busy housewife with four daughters to manage, and I remember well the feeling I would get when she would occasionally go to the piano to play. It filled our home with peace, and I was drawn to the warmth of it. As the age of three and a half, my mom tells me I went up to the piano myself, crawled up onto the bench and started to figure out the theme from Sesame Street, the popular children’s TV show. She knew then that I had an ear for music, and shortly thereafter they enrolled me in piano lessons.
JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
LB: – As a classically trained pianist, the classical influence in my original music was initially quite strong, particularly in my approach to instrumental compositions. After I started singing and checking out more mainstream artists – Björk, Sting, Joni Mitchell, etc – my music began to veer towards a more “pop” sound. I also started transcribing arrangements of Pop music by other Jazz musicians I admired, for example Geoffrey Keezer’s covers of Björk and Radiohead.
JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
LB: – To be perfectly honest, I practice very little these days. I have a 9-year-old son and spend much of my time either in front of the computer or on the road (pre-COVID). I suppose my current way of practicing is by listening on the go, allowing my ear to absorb new sounds, learning by exposure and osmosis.
JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
LB: – I don’t try to prevent them at all. I allow the disparate influences to co-exist and hope it will result in a more unique hybridized sound.
JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
LB: – For me, the balance of physical movement (walks, workouts, etc) is key. Even while touring, I try to get in at least 30 mins of walking or a quick workout. This keeps the lymphatic system of the body healthy, and will support overall wellness, which his critical when on the road and performing almost nightly. I also use a special steam inhaler for my voice, for extra lubrication to protect the vocal cords. In terms of the spiritual, I have a daily prayer and meditation practice to help my mind stay focused on the things that matter most.
JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?
LB: – The musicians who perform on Out of Dust are mostly long-time friends and colleagues. They’re almost all people I’ve developed a strong working connection with over years of making music together – especially the rhythm section with Larnell Lewis, Ben Wittman (my husband), George Koller and Rich Brown.
JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
LB: – That’s a big question. We are cognizant, volitional beings who can create from a thinking place; but it’s important to also maintain a connection with our feelings and emotions as well, which one could argue are more rooted in the soul (vs. the mind). For every person, the exact balance will be different. Some will create from a more intellectual place; others will use an approach that’s more intuitive and driven by emotions. But if music purely came from intellect, I don’t believe it would move those listening. It must carry emotion and “soul” as well, in order to touch others.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
LB: – Sure! I know some artists are very protective and don’t want to be influenced by what they feel others want. They feel that could compromise the purity of their vision. For me, it’s all about connection. If the music isn’t connecting with my audience, I would quickly lose my primary motivation.
JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
LB: – Following the first project I was a part of with Sting, all the musicians, including Sting, gathered in the lounge of the hotel to play songs together. It was a wonderful mix – an open jam session and a party. Drinks were flowing and so was the music. I, however, allowed myself to get stuck inside my head and was afraid to join in because, even though I had been performing with all those musicians on stage, I felt I didn’t have something worthy to bring to the table in that moment. The spirit of the occasion was open, inclusive and friendly, and yet I allowed fear and self-judgment to hold me back, which I still regret to this day.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
LB: – I think bands like Snarky Puppy are doing wonderful things to freshen up Jazz and bring it to the next generation. They add infectious deep beats while maintaining other fundamentals of Jazz – improvisation, sophisticated harmonies, interesting rhythms. This makes the music accessible and fun.
JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
LB: – This is a difficult question to answer in a sentence or two. To me, human connection and connection with the Divine are the meaning of life. Music is the language by which we can experience that connection.
JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
LB: – Music would be valued as a critical component of life. It would be included as a mandatory part of early education in every country, and society as a whole would value musicians as indispensable. People would attend shows on a regular basis as a way of life, where cultural experiences and exchanges are as important as eating and exercise.
JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
LB: – My listening is quite varied. In some ways, it reflects the moment. Over the Easter weekend, I listened to the Choir of St. Thomas Church (NYC group), for example. Otherwise, I listen a lot to podcasts where storytelling is important – The Moth podcast, Radio Lab, and others.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
LB: – The message I most want to communicate is that we are not alone – in our joys, in our sufferings, in our triumphs and in our trials. We are connected through the great human experience we call Life.
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
LB: – That depends. If it’s a trip into the past, I would be interested in experiencing the Medieval time period. I know that may sound weird, but I’m curious to see how life actually played out in those days, and not just the Hollywood version of it.
JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
LB: – What does music mean to you?
JBN: – You can not understand …
JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
Interview by Simon Sargsyan