The Many Journeys of Laila Biali

“Intense focus on the verge of chaos at all times,” says Laila Biali on how her new album House Of Many Rooms began its journey in the studio. With a full choir steeped in gospel grace, a 15-piece string section, one wailing sax solo and tonal shifts accentuating a more pop based feel, the album marks a new path for Biali as she deviates away from her more traditional piano jazz-based past. It’s just one of many roads she has traveled down in recent years.

Beginning with rousing fanfare type flourish, the album’s opening track, “Shadowlands,” explodes five seconds in. Carried by the wind, over mountaintops, chasing galaxies, to the water’s edge, wandering down the tracks and soaring with the birds, these rooms are filled with many journeys. “There’s no turning back,” sings Biali, and you rush forward with her into these soul raising melodies on an album that’s filled with hope and light within the darkness.

Biali is well aware of her wanderlust. She’s moved from Vancouver to Toronto and, more recently, to New York. Since starting her professional career she has toured the world playing Tokyo’s Cotton Club and the famed Carnegie Hall, all this while trying to maintain a family life on the road. She is married to her band’s drummer, Ben Wittman, and they tour with their young son Josh.

The song “Little Bird” was written with him in mind, recalling a tumultuous time in her and Wittman’s relationship. Though the song wonders about other lives down other roads, Biali sites the surprise arrival of her son as getting the couple to focus on commitment and keeping them together.

“In my personal life, it was the messy foray into parenthood while trying to build a foundation with my husband amidst the transience of life in New York City,” she says. “It’s an adventure. Just when we think we know where we’re going and that we have a clear map to follow, we end up off-roading in the wilderness. It keeps us on our toes and growing, individually and as a family. I’m not sure we would have it any other way!”

Biali sites influences from Björk and Karkwa for the album’s new sound, but still holding on to those jazz roots, she also highlights genre pushing jazz pianist Robert Glasper as inspiration, with perhaps a little nudge to those she’s shared the stage with. Sting, by way of Lisa Fischer, brought her on as a backup for a tour and she’s featured on his A Winter’s Night DVD. She’s also toured with Chris Botti, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall and Suzanne Vega to name a few.

One can understand why bringing her own original material forward might have taken a bit of time, but she was ready to chart some new territory. Though she’s said in the past that touring with other musicians can sometimes hamper her own style and creation process, she puts a positive spin upon what she derives from those she’s toured with.

laila-biali-house-of-many-rooms-album-cover-artwork-1-8mb (1)“I let the songs dictate the musical and arrangement choices, whether they were influenced by the other artists I work with or not, and certainly some were. It was all very organic, and I think it’s natural for musicians to absorb the sound palettes they’re being exposed to regularly. Thank goodness most of the artists I’ve worked with I admire!”

The transition from those tours and playing covers and standards was not an easy one.

“It was downright painful at moments, terrifying,” she says. “I had to slay a lot of mental demons, silence the judges, to put this album out there. It’s much easier, much safer, just to cover other peoples’ music, at least for me it is.”

The result shines even in the album’s darker moments that touch upon miscarriage and murder. There’s always a guiding hand to bring you back to the light.

“Lonely nights won’t last / darkness fades / shadows pass,” Biali urges, and for all the twists and turns on the road House of Many Rooms will take you on, near the end, she returns home where faith and family await.

“And by family I’m not just referring to the people I’m connected to by blood and through marriage,” she says, “but to the human family that is everywhere – my community, people I see on the street, even strangers. In that sense, home is everywhere.”

Biali’s current tour makes a stop at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, February 27. She promises the live show won’t stray as far down the path fans may be used to as the studio album has.

“Ottawa listeners will hear more of the “jazz trio” sound they might expect,” she ensures. “But not without a twist.”