Q&A with Lisa Hilton on NOCTURNAL out January 22

Nocturnal bandLisa Hilton with Antonio Sanchez, J.D. Allen, Terell Stafford & Gregg August (photo: George Brooks)

Q: What is “trans-genre” music? You mention that some of the music on NOCTURNAL is trans-genre.

LH: While I was composing music for NOCTURNAL, there was a media uproar regarding a white woman pretending to be black and a male athlete who transgendered to female. I also saw a comedian in Los Angeles, make us laugh when he noted that soon we’d all be the color of ‘khaki’. These instances show that our world is not as segmented – not as black and white- anymore, and I think music should reflect that. This whole idea that jazz or any genre of music should adhere to strict guidelines is antiquated. We eat food from all different cultures and we should be able to be cross-cultural in our music too, right? Some of the music I composed on NOCTURNAL takes classical ideas, concepts or forms and are then completed with our jazz concepts of improvisation, free jazz, blues, shifting modal key centers, or poly – rhythms.

Q: Why classical – hasn’t that been done?

LH: Throughout history, many jazz composers that I admire have also worked in classical forms: Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and George Gershwin to name a few icons. I also liked the idea of working on longer, more emotionally driven works – like John Coltrane did on ‘A Love Supreme’. Composers need variety: I’ve got over 200 tracks on iTunes now – I really enjoyed investigating what I liked best about classical vs. jazz.

Q: Any straight ahead jazz on NOCTURNAL?

LH: Of course – I love that too! The title track ‘Nocturnal,’ ‘Whirlwind’, and a cover of (Ann Ronell’s) ‘Willow Weep for Me’ are very traditional, while ‘Seduction’, ‘Desire’, and ‘Symphony of Blues’ are really bluesy. ‘A Spark in the Night’ has a Latin flavor, (that was the band’s favorite track, btw), while ‘Twilight’ and ‘Midnight Stars’ are examples of impressionism. The Pixie’s ‘Where Is My Mind’ is conceptual I’d say, and ‘An August Remembered’ has a tinge of gospel.

Q: Tell us about the band – you added some new players didn’t you?

LH: I explore different ideas in each album – last year’s HORIZONS was inspired by nature, KALEIDOSCOPE dealt with poly-genre ideas. For NOCTURNAL, I was looking for greater emotional depth, with more complex playing on some tunes. I felt I needed really great players, and I was lucky to get them! I have worked with J.D. Allen on tenor sax for several years – I consider his deep Detroit sound to be the ‘Tenor of our Times’. J.D. introduced me to bassist Gregg August, and I’ve toured a little with him and now we’re recording together too. Gregg has an extensive Latin background, is in the Brooklyn Philharmonic, has a masters degree from Julliard, composes, AND is a great jazz bassist – I knew he could handle anything. I hadn’t met Terell Stafford before, but my trumpeter from last year was touring so I reached out to him and he was perfect – what a beautiful tone, and spirit he has. I had met Antonio Sanchez in the past but, as you know, he tours a lot, and we had never played together. Fortunately I still had his email, and he said yes right away. Everyone is aware of what an amazing drummer he is, and how great his score for ‘Birdman’ was, but playing with him really put me on my toes – he creates so much movement in his playing. Everyone was amazing to work with – the skill level was really up there. Terell said after it was an ‘honor to work with such great musicians’ and I felt the same way.

Q: Did you do anything different on the sound?

LH: I love great sound, so I work with the same engineers every year. They are the ‘Unsung Heroes’ in music: James Farber for recording, multi-Grammy winner Al Schmitt, ‘The God of Sound’ (with Steve Genewick) mixes the albums and multi-Grammy winner Gavin Lurssen mastered my first album and we’re still working together! They are my friends and I look forward to seeing them every year.

Q: What do you like to do best – compose, perform, or produce albums?

LH: I like all those hats, and they really all add up to being a better musician – a more whole person. Even the business side helps you understand music. Most musicians you see perform are primarily performers or players that might compose a little. For me I really HAVE to compose – that is my art form.

Q: Speaking of art, you were a college drop – out in music, but got a degree in art instead. How did that effect your career?

LH: I think it had a bigger emotional impact on me – I loved the piano but the institutional education in SF was stifling creatively, so it felt like walking away from my ‘true love.’ Studying art, art history, and being creative based on visual, rather than aural decisions, has turned out to be really helpful. Music is an art form – it’s not physics. I think a lot about the challenges different artists had when I compose too. I think it has helped me immensely to have a background in art.

Q: You perform at venues like Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, but you also have dates at schools for blind students, music stores or clubs – that’s quite a range there.

LH: I think music should be accessible anywhere: not just for those who can pay for pricey tickets. Every performance is a unique – I like to be open to almost anything – in New Zealand I played in a city park outside once. I love it all!  I’m excited about debuting the new music for the first time January 17th at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall though – it will be the first performance of “Midnight Sonata” and other compositions:   http://www.carnegiehall.org/Calendar/2016/1/17/0200/PM/Lisa-Hilton-and-Friends/

Q: Do you have friends or family that are blind – is that why you go to schools for the blind?

LH: No one in my circle is blind, but I’ve met all kinds of great people who are blind in recent years: lawyers, musicians, and many inspiring individuals. I like to give what I would have liked to have received – growing up in my small town I would have loved to have met a professional musician, but never had that opportunity, so I hope other students enjoy when I visit and perform. I am also aware of a bias today – all musicians play for people who are young or old, black or white, yet few make the effort to reach out to those with disabilities. I think music should be for everyone.  Lisa Hilton performs at Perkins School for the Blind:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F14YsHvKIK4

Q: Lastly, who are your favorite pianists – who do you listen to?

LH: I try and listen to a wide variety of music: Brad Mehldau or Thelonious Monk for jazz. For classical I listen to Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. For Latin I like Chucho Valdez.