Smooth jazz might be an even worse idea than soft rock or light beer, which makes Laila Biali’s self-titled album a miracle of sorts. The Toronto pianist masterfully mixes jazz and pop, bringing virtuosity and unpredictability to songs that are concise and catchy.
Biali has toured with Sting and Chris Botti, and operates in territory those artists have explored. Her intricate arrangements are filled with lovely ornamentation but don’t become busy. George Koller’s bass provides plenty of backbone as part of a supporting cast so extensive the list in promotional material doesn’t even include standout trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who plays on two cuts.
Biali’s appealing alto shines most of all, and while she’s no showboat, there’s a wow factor when she climbs the scale. Some of the best vocals are wordless as they float, dance, weave and pingpong.
And almost everything swings. Biali wrote nine songs and includes three covers, all excellent. Laila does no Derek and the Dominos, alas, but she transforms Coldplay’s “Yellow” into a swirl of dynamics and rhythms, brings out the beauty of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” and slowly builds to a closing jam on David Bowie’s “Let Dance.” It’s intoxicating, and way better than light beer. Steven Wine, AP