Attendees at Friday night’s Harker Concert Series season opener got an earful, as Laila Biali brought no shortage of energy and emotion, performing a wide selection of original songs and arrangements of several of her favorite songs, all driven by her powerful vocals and accomplished piano work.
Biali had a story for each of the songs she performed with her trio – drummer Mike Quigg, bassist Josh Thurston-Milgrom and trumpeter (and upper school music teacher) Dave Hart – which worked in her favor, as her ability to tell stories made each tune feel a little more special, as though she was sharing the songs with the audience, and not just playing for them.
The opening two songs, both inspired by her experiences living in New York City, were also two of the evening’s highlights. “We Go” celebrates the city’s famous nightlife with an up-tempo, shoulder-moving urgency that provides the perfect backing for Biali’s impressive vocal talents and skyscraper-climbing range. Meanwhile, “Got to Love” is a fast moving paean to the borough of Brooklyn as it undergoes and attempts to beat back the gentrification that has swept over the area in the last decade.
Biali also has a keen ear for covers and how to arrange them to suit her strengths without sacrificing the power of the source material. This rare talent was most apparent on her rendition of K.D. Lang’s “Simple,” featuring a delicate vocal over a shimmering piano, effortlessly bringing out the aching joy in Lang’s lyrics. Meanwhile, concert closer and David Bowie hit “Let’s Dance” retained the no-nonsense beat of the original while incorporating Biali’s jazzy sensibilities and putting her smoky, bluesy vocals in place of Bowie’s throaty theatrics.
Biali’s trio turned in stellar work throughout the evening, particularly impressive as Biali noted that they had been playing much of this music for the first time. Although Biali was the star of the night, Quigg, Thurston-Milgrom and Hart each left their mark with stand-out solos and tight interplay.