“Got to Love” the music: Laila Biali jazzes up traditional styles in first performance of annual Concert Series


Esha Gohil

Juno Award winning jazz vocalist and pianist Laila Biali claps after performing one of her original works at the first Concert Series show last Friday night. In addition to her performance, Biali led workshops with jazz band, Downbeat and the upper school orchestra on Thursday and Friday.

by Kathy Fang, Editor-in-Chief

“One, two—one, two, three, four!”

The deep notes of the bass and a catchy drum rhythm kick off an upbeat jazz song, led by a bright trumpet melody. After a few counts, jazz vocalist, pianist and songwriter Laila Biali leans into the microphone and launches into the opening lyrics of her song “We Go,” sprinkling in vibrant chords on the piano as her soprano voice fills the theater.

Biali starred as the first featured artist of this year’s Concert Series, bringing a weekend of workshops and music to the upper school. Biali, a Canadian artist who recently won the 2019 Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, was invited by music teacher and Concert Series artistic director Dr. Dave Hart to lead workshops with jazz band, Downbeat and the upper school orchestra on Thursday and Friday, as well as an open rehearsal on Friday afternoon, before performing in the Patil Theater last night at 7 p.m.

Every year, the upper school performing arts department sponsors a series of performances by professional musicians, ranging from string quartets to modern jazz combos. When Dr. Hart was planning this year’s Concert Series, Biali, a former colleague of Dr. Hart’s at Stanford Jazz Workshop, “jumped out” as a candidate with a unique musical philosophy to share.

“I always tell the students this—I just want to find the best musicians out there and get them close to those musicians, because when you’re around a good musician or a great musician, like Laila, it can change your life,” said Dr. Hart, who joined Biali onstage Friday night on the trumpet. “My hope was, honestly, that she would just inspire with her musicianship and just push us in new directions, musically, and she does.”

Biali’s style of music mixes jazz, pop and classical styles in songs and covers that feature harmonically complicated musical structures, reviving old melodies and creating original works alike. Friday night’s setlist featured a combination of classical jazz tunes, such as “Nature Boy” and “Night and Day,” in addition to some of her own songs.

Whether it be a well-known hit tune like “Heart of Gold” or a self-written piece like “Got to Love,” Biali adds a personal touch to each of her performances, sharing anecdotes and interacting dynamically with the band and audience as she sang.

“The way she reinterprets these classic and enshrined songs and brings to them a whole new sentiment—it’s what the best of music is supposed to be. I was really moved by that,” jazz pianist Kalyan Narayanan (12) said.

Biali’s musical career began at the age of three, when she played the Sesame Street melody on the piano “without having been taught a thing yet.” “That sealed my fate,” Biali said, laughing at the memory.

Biali then trained in classical piano under the Leila Fletcher method, which, as Biali remembers, involved arts and crafts activities that taught music as an enjoyable and tactile art. By the time Biali was eight, she had traded bedtime stories for bedtime études, listening to classical cassette tapes every night.

“The music would just wash over me, and it would give me such a feeling of excitement,” she said. “I wanted so much to be able to create that for others.”

Biali went on to study jazz in college and became a professional pianist. Even though she wasn’t professionally trained as a vocalist, Biali delved into vocal music in addition to her work as a jazz and classical instrumentalist, and with that, she began to develop her niche in the world of music, earning multiple honors in numerous fields along the way. Last year, she released her newest album, “Laila Biali,” a mix of original songs and covers that won the equivalent of a Canadian Grammy award earlier this year.

Throughout her musical career, Biali has kept the spirit of her childhood inspiration with her, and her lasting determination to bring that “feeling of excitement” to others through her music has largely influenced the work that she creates. In her music, Biali hopes to share both her love for the art and the lessons that it has taught her.

“Music teaches us to listen to one another,” she said. “It’s communication. So in that sense, I think that that principle and the values of music, if they expanded into society—principles of listening to one another and then you contribute what you can that serves the whole… everybody is contributing, and then we all rise together.”

Biali emphasized this especially during her workshop with the upper school jazz band, during which she led the student musicians in a big-band arrangement of her arrangement of Coldplay’s song “Yellow.” Though they only had time for two run-throughs and some section-specific workshopping, Biali hopes that by exploring this piece, students learned how to find connection as a band through the music itself.

“I wanted to be able to help them listen to one another. You do your part and you realize how you fit into the whole, and then everything improves. And we actually saw that in real time,” Biali said.

The next Concert Series performance will feature piano, saxophone and cello combo The Bohemian Trio on Nov. 22, followed by contemporary classical group Kronos Quartet on Feb. 28.