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COLUMN: Juno winner set to jazz things up in Orillia this week

Laila Biali, who has performed on big U.S. stages and was backup singer for Sting, among those starring in the upcoming Orillia Jazz Festival

COVID-19 certainly brought the arts and culture sector to a complete halt, but now that the pandemic is somewhat being managed here in Ontario, it’s like the sector couldn’t wait to rev up again… and nothing is going to stop it!

There is so much happening and about to happen, it’s hard to know where to begin.

There's a big cultural event coming Oct. 15 to 17 is the Orillia Jazz Festival. Again, another special happening that has restarted after being cancelled last year. There are three Jazz Fest events, one each night, and all at the Orillia Opera House.

Friday, Oct. 15 at 7:30 p.m., the feature is the Laila Biali Trio. Biali was born in Vancouver and studied piano from the time she was four years old. An arm injury at the age of 15 put an end to her dreams of being a classical pianist, and she shifted to jazz, singing and song writing.

A big break helped her get where she is today.

“I was very fortunate to be selected for a group called Sisters in Jazz back in 2001 as part of an all-star collegiate competition run by the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE)," explained Biali.

"College students auditioned from around the world, and they chose six applicants to form an ensemble. In January 2001, I was whisked off to New York City to perform with the Sisters in Jazz group at the annual IAJE conference," said Biali.

"We then went on to headline the Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C., as well as six summer jazz festivals across Europe. It was an incredible experience," she said.

“Following that, I had opportunities to tour with a number of different artists I admire: Chris Botti, Suzanne Vega, Paula Cole, and most recently, Sting (I contributed background vocals to his forthcoming album release)," Biali added.

Biali has released eight albums since 2003; the 2018 album, Laila Biali, won the Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year. Her latest album, Out of Dust, was released in 2020. She tours with her trio, which includes her husband, drummer Ben Wittman; and bassist George Koller.

What can the audience expect on Oct. 15?

“This will be our debut show at Orillia Jazz Festival," said Biali. "We'll be sharing a mix of songs from my latest album Out of Dust, our self-titled JUNO winning release, the Canadian songbook, and re-imaginings of pop hits. I also love to tell stories in between songs, to provide some context. There will be something for everyone, even the jazz skeptics!”

Don’t miss a free performance outside the Orillia Opera House, at 6 p.m. Oct. 15, the premiere of Natasha Powell’s new work, Together Again, facilitated by the Orillia Centre for Art and Culture.

The show on Oct. 16 at 7:30 p.m., features more jazz, of course, wrapped in a different package. The group Brassworks is headlining the show, entitled Rhythm of Our World. Also featured is a reunion of sorts for Jazzamatazz, the vocal jazz group from the 80s and 90s that Ted Duff started in our area. A quartet of former Jazzamatazz members will take to the stage to remind us of that wonderful time.

Other very special guests for this show are three young musicians.

“Part of the Festival's mandate is to involve local youth musicians," said Orillia Secondary School music teacher Laura Christie. "In the past, Brassworks has featured an All-Star Jazz Band of high school students as well as a youth solo competition winner at this concert.

"Unfortunately, due to the devastating effect COVID-19 has had on school music programs, we have had to scale things back. However, this concert will feature one talented student from each of the three Orillia high schools," said Christie.

The student musicians are Grace Locker on trumpet from Orillia Secondary School, Zach Zirger on alto sax from Patrick Fogarty, and Laurel Van Pypen on tenor sax from Twin Lakes.

"Being able to feature these students is hopefully a start to moving back to 'normal'," said Christie.

Finally, the Orillia Jazz Festival will finish off Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. with Lance Anderson and his well-loved show, Oscar Peterson: The Jazz Legend and the Man I Knew. This is a theatrical and musical presentation with Anderson and bassist Russ Boswell.

Tickets for all shows are available through the Orillia Opera House box office at 705-326-8011 or online here. All COVID-19 protocols are in place and proof of vaccination must be shown to attend a show.