LAILA BIALI HONORS THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK WITH NEW ALBUM
For the first time in 10 years, multi-award-winning vocalist and pianist Laila Biali returns to jazz standards with an all-star lineup including Kurt Elling & Anat Cohen. Biali breathes new life into songs by Gershwin, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart, with her signature modernity and impeccable musicianship.
Release Date: May 26, 2023 (ACT Music, Empress Music Group, CORE PORT)
Highly acclaimed musician Laila Biali is a force on the jazz scene in her native Canada and beyond. The JUNO Award-winner’s distinctive voice is typically on dazzling display in her original music. Now, after ten years recording her own material, Biali turns her attention to the Great American Songbook with Your Requests, her ninth album as bandleader. While showcasing her own impressive skill set, Biali gathers longtime collaborators for the outing: drummers Larnell Lewis (Snarky Puppy) and Ben Wittman along with bassist George Koller and tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson.
The shift back to more classic jazz material was inspired by Biali’s delight in fulfilling the song requests of her fans. When she asked her social media followers what tunes they’d like to hear her cover, more than 150 songs were submitted. Your Requests debuts the first collection of Biali’s dynamic and personal arrangements in response to her listeners, a “musical love letter.”
“It's always a delicate balance preserving key elements of the original versions of these classic songs while moving them into new territory,” Biali says. “I liken the arranging process to a renovation. The foundation - the lyrics and melody - must remain intact, but there's lots of room for play.” And play she does. Biali tastefully puts her stamp on these songs without letting the musical reworking run amok, trading an expected swing feel for a more hard-driving straight-eighth groove and reharmonizing more typical chord progressions with thoughtful boldness.
“Where the renovation analogy falls short is that my ultimate goal is not to improve that which arguably can't be improved – these songs are, after all, classics for a reason,” she adds. “My aim is to offer something personal and unique with the hope that listeners will experience familiar songs in a new way.”
Right from the first track, a smart and energetic take on Dixon & Henderson’s Bye Bye Blackbird, Biali’s arranging ethos and piano chops are in full force while Jefferson and Lewis trade blistering solos over Koller’s anchoring bass ostinato. A haunting rendition of Blame It on My Youth moves the all-star ensemble, which includes Wittman’s creative and layered percussion, from punchy odd meters to a soulful flowing landscape enhanced wonderfully by B3 master Sam Yahel (Joshua Redman).
For the first time in her recording career, Biali also teams up with several vocalists for enthralling duets. JUNO Award-winner Emilie-Claire Barlow features on an exhilarating rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things. Scat sensation and recent JUNO winner Caity Gyorgy charms on a lilting delivery of Pennies from Heaven, while Kurt Elling lends his bold and brilliant voice to My Funny Valentine. Together in perfect harmony, Biali and Elling guide the well-known love song into a contemporary context to thrilling effect.
Biali shares, “When Kurt agreed to join me on My Funny Valentine, it was the fulfillment of a dream! I've been a fan for decades.” Elling’s delivery of the melody is so adventurous that Biali and her husband and co-producer, Ben Wittman, were initially concerned it might be too much of a departure. “In the end, his melodic reimagining prompted me to explore new melodic possibilities myself, stretching in ways that helped me grow as a vocalist and interpreter in the studio,” Biali reflects. The end result is both faithful and fearless – very much in the spirit of jazz.
When it comes to the Great American Songbook, the Gerswhin brothers contributions are so prolific, one is hard-pressed to find good reason to reimagine their work. However, Biali makes a compelling case, reinterpreting the oft-played But Not For Me as a samba and showcasing clarinetist Anat Cohen. Cohen’s virtuosity is expertly supported by Biali’s exuberant arrangement as the two musicians playfully dialogue atop the bubbling rhythms of Brazilian percussionist Maninho Costa and drummer Ben Wittman.
The final guest appearance on the album belongs to harmonica master Grégoire Maret. Here, Antoñio Carlos Jobim’s Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) provides the perfect canvas for a lush delivery of the iconic bossa nova.
Together, Biali and this impressive company of all-star guests add notable richness and nuance to much- loved jazz classics with powerful vocals as a constant theme. That is until Biali takes a surprising turn on the final track. For critics tempted to call her “merely” a jazz vocalist, she proves otherwise with a fierce instrumental rendition of Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are. The searing, cleverly reharmonized arrangement closes out the record, reminding listeners that if one wades into familiar waters, they best have something new to say.
1. Bye Bye Blackbird 2. Blame It On My Youth 3. But Not for Me (feat. Anat Cohen) 4. My Funny Valentine (feat. Kurt Elling) 5. My Favorite Things
(feat. Emilie-Claire Barlow) 6. Corcovado (Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars) (feat. Grégoire Maret)
7. Pennies from Heaven
(feat. Caity Gyorgy) 8. Autumn Leaves 9. The Nearness of You 10. All the Things You Are
Laila Biali – vocals, piano, Rhodes, arrangements
Kelly Jefferson – tenor & soprano saxophones
George Koller – bass Larnell Lewis – drums Ben Wittman – drums & percussion Sam Yahel – Hammond B3 organ (Blame It on My Youth)
Maninho Costa – percussion (But Not for Me) Michael Davidson – vibes (Pennies from Heaven)