Q & A with composer/pianist Lisa Hilton on her upcoming release, “Escapism”

Q:  Escapism, what kind of title is that?

LH: It’s been an incredible year on our planet, hasn’t it?  You can’t turn around without another crazy thing happening. I record an album every year and I have never seen so much turmoil as I have in the last eleven months.  You can either get stressed and dragged down when you come face to face with the intense struggles happening. Climate, culture, and politics all seem to be in states of disruption! Or, as an artist you can take your inspiration out of that spiral and create light.  You’re not going to find peace surfing the news – I wanted to create something of an escape from all that. This album is about focusing on, and savoring, the beauty that still surrounds us. It’s very uplifting and energetic. So to experience the album is actually a form of escapism which I think we all need.

Q: There is a noticeably different sound and energy from your album Nocturnal, what inspired that?  

LH: Musically I was ready to try a new palette of ideas and colors. This is my 20th release, and I always have a backlog of ideas I want to explore. I also moved to a new home, and I think I was influenced by the more tropical foliage around me – I think that’s where Hot Summer Samba came from!  That feeling of escapism led the energy.

Q:  That Hot Summer Samba is a pretty high voltage opener– the band sounds strong on that.

LH: Oh that song was really fun to record! Rudy (Royston/drums) added that cool intro riff after a couple takes that I just loved, and Gregg (August/bass) really went with the bass line I had written; he sounds terrific.  Some of the takes were even hotter than the one I eventually chose!  My bet is, once we’re in front of an audience, this one is going to be fun and I hope, an audience favorite!  

Q:  What was it like working with your band again after last year’s solo piano recording, “Day & Night?”  

LH: We’re family now, they even call me “Sis.”  I’ve recorded seven albums with JD Allen, (tenor sax) – I have always said that I think he is the “Tenor (sax) of our Times” – I love his deep Detroit tone. I’ve toured with Gregg and recorded three times with him – he’s an incredibly well rounded musician as well as having a master’s degree from Julliard. Rudy I’ve toured with and I’ve recorded with twice – is an exceptional all around drummer, and Terell (Stafford/trumpet and flugelhorn), just fits right in – he’s got a huge heart to go along with that huge talent – this is my second recording with him.  Everyone in this band is a leader. I am always honored, excited and thankful to be able to work with them and to hear what they will add to my compositions – that’s why recording is one of my favorite things that I do all year. They are remarkable musicians and I get a front row seat to their talents. I love listening to everything we record – there is always an abundance of cool stuff they’ve contributed.

Q:  Do you rehearse first? Or just go with it?

LH: I’ve always swung the Miles (Davis) way: I discuss the tune, and what it means to me and the overarching mood and goals that I might have musically, they look over the charts and ask any questions, and then we record. That’s it. I like to do 3-4 takes. I do not believe in the “First Take Fantasy” that many players have because honestly, the first take is not always the best.  As a producer, I never overdub, and I never Auto-Tune.  If you’re trying to capture emotions, and the ethereal qualities of music, I think that’s the best way. I do create the charts ahead of time that show what the piano is doing, but allow my band mates to do what they do best.

Q:  Which musicians fire up your inspiration?

LH: My inspiration can come from anywhere, but I still gravitate to many of our great American composers – I hear references to Miles Davis on my “29 Palms”, Count Basie, and Neal Hefti , (with a bit of Beethoven), on “Escape Velocity Blues”, and that bass line I wrote on “Hot Summer Samba” seems reminiscent of Horace Silver. But frankly, I’m influenced by all kinds of music whether it’s Green Day, The Black Keys or The Chainsmokers even. Our world is not just global now, it’s also poly-genre and multi-generational and our music reflects this vastness of influence.

Q:  Your one cover is the Lerner & Lane classic, “On A Clear Day”, why did you chose that one?

LH: My mother. She loved that song, and as a little girl I thought the “Clear Day” was referring to a sunny day with no fog or rain – which I could relate to growing up in a small (often foggy) coastal California town!  Now I see the lyrics as having a more spiritual component. To me, it’s about having clarity in your life and urging you to “look around you” at the beauty of nature that will “astound you”, so I felt it fits well for the album. After the extremely busy time I’ve had this summer – moving to a new place and composing/recording – the term “clear day” took on a new meaning as I longed for a lazy day clear of responsibilities! Now that’s the essence of Escapism – having a clear day to do what you please or do nothing have some time to enrich your soul, right?

Q:  Hah – yeah, that’s true!  What’s up next for you now that the album is finishing?

LH:  I’m quite excited to share the new music live. We’re booked into Carnegie Hall, on January 11 with an 8pm show.  Hearing the band live – like I have in the studio – play this music with those perfect acoustics and wonderful piano from Steinway, these new compositions will sound amazing!  I’m really looking forward to it!