An enticing collection pulsing with West Coast cool is what the acclaimed pianist and award-winning composer Lisa Hilton has created with her new release, OASIS. Along with her trio mates, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., they have delivered on that promise with a new album that is expressive, emotionally intelligent, and well-conceived. On OASIS, Hilton notes that the album title refers to a place of refuge, relief and a realization during the composing process that while she herself needed an antidote during these tumultuous times, others were seeking their own safe haven, or “oasis,” as well. The pianist’s twenty first release is meant to lift spirits as a positive and energizing force in our lives — something the pianist and her trio have accomplished using traditional ideas in new and invigorating ways.
The opening track, “Twists of Fate,” surprises the senses with its cool laid back vibe laced with an energy of Thelonious Monk and Count Basie’s best excursions in bop, with Hilton leaving plenty of aural room while Curtis and Whitfield lay down some incredibly arresting rhythms.
The trio then segues into the Horace Silver influenced, “Adventure Lands.” Compositions like the title track, “Oasis,” “Watercolor World” and “Sunday Morning” showcase the trio’s collective ability to coalesce around an ethereal or ecstatic mood; at times with washes of free jazz and cascading notes. The classic George Gershwin tune, “Fascinating Rhythm,” now travels in some new directions with the supple grooves of Curtis and Whitfield as well as yielding the melody under Hilton’s supple touch. This is a good companion to Hilton’s “Vapors & Shadows” as well as the lively “Just for Fun.” “Lazy Daisy” is a slow blues for a sunny afternoon, though here with an impish twist mixing bluesy tones against simpler melodic ideas. Latin rhythms weave in and out of Hilton’s compositions, and here are showcased on the fast paced “Sunshine States.” The final track “Warm Summer Night” ends the album in a solo piano version awash in Americana.
Q & A with Lisa Hilton:
Q: OASIS, your new recording, is a trio date with Luques Curtis and Mark Whitley Jr. – you’ve been known lately for your quintet or solo piano releases – how did the decision to record a trio come about?
LH: At the Smithsonian Museum in DC last April, I played a trio date with Luques and Rudy Royston. The performance went amazingly well – with just bass and drums the set seemed freer and more relaxed than with the quintet. So, I decided then that the next project would be a trio date. It’s been five years since I recorded a trio with Marcus Gilmore and Nasheet Waits – that was GETAWAY – so I thought it was time to revisit that format again with Luques and Mark. I had forgotten how much I love that configuration. It feels a bit more personal and the rapport between the musicians in the studio is tighter.
Q: Of course, Luques Curtis and Mark Whitfield Jr. play together frequently, so that must have helped too.
LH: Absolutely! They play really well together, and they are both excellent musicians as well as good friends. I teased them and said, “Hey you guys really should play together,” and they laughed and said they had known each other since they were kids. It was a really friendly two days recording at Power Station at Berklee NYC. Both those guys, as well as everyone working there, are Berklee College graduates which created a really warm camaraderie in the studio. Our engineer, Fernando Lodeiro also went to Berklee.
Q: Your music normally has a subtext or a deeper concept – what about OASIS?
LH: As an artist, I believe art should identify or react to what is going on in our world. This is quite apparent with those artists who believe in social change through their art – their agenda is clear. But I feel, it is also true for most artists even if it’s a more subtle. OASIS is a direct response to the “normalcy” of turmoil, chaos, rapid change and heightened emotions in our world right now…Immigration and the dislocation of refugees on a massive scale, political turbulence, an opiod drug epidemic and climate tragedies are now all common place, as well as the continuing threat of terrorism. I feel we are all quietly searching for our own “oasis” in these times: how can we find the way to our own peace at the end of the news? “Oasis” means something serving as a refuge or relief…that’s what we all need, right? Where can we find this? It’s within, really only to be found in our spirit, or subconscious mind perhaps. It’s an everyday process, but I think through nature, faith, love and hopefully through art and this music, you can recover a sense of uplift. Our music is meant to be an energizing oasis in our busy lives – by listening on the subway, stuck in traffic, at work or at play it’s meant to lift your spirit.
Q: The photos on the album really convey an idyllic location…
LH: Yeah, that was fun! A photo shoot by a pool on a sunny day is always nice, especially for working musicians! It is great to go on a vacay, but really for me I love my job: the real oasis for most musicians is when we are on stage -we love to bring joy to audiences, or in the recording studio when the music takes form for the first time.
Q: Over the years, you keep mentioning the importance of nature in your music – tell us more about that.
LH: My dad was a biologist so it probably started there, but I was that kid who just wanted to be outside…after I finished my piano practice, of course! These days when I see people outside, they’re not really there -they’re often on their phones, or taking selfies, not really enjoying what surrounds them. To me nature itself is nurturing, uplifting and entertaining too – there’s always something new going on outside.
Q: What musicians have inspired your compositions on this release?
LH: I always seem to gravitate to the cool but casual style of Count Basie, the grooves of Horace Silver, and the genius of Thelonious Monk. This year I think I threw in a bit of Rachmaninoff for good measure too.
Q: Any favorite tunes on this one?
LH: I was surprised how much I liked Twists of Fate. I worked on that composition a long time, a bit of a struggle and then, with the energy in the studio session, it completely changed and I love it! Some of my girlfriends have nicknamed me “Sunshine” and the track Sunshine States refers to the presence of generosity or kindness— to voluntarily spread light to others, something I try and live by – so that is a special tune for me. But as the composer, my compositions are like my children so they’re all my favorites!
Q: And Fascinating Rhythm?
LH: Oh, I forgot to mention George Gershwin! He was such a great composer of classical as well as jazz and popular tunes—opera and film too, of course. I think some of my music, like Vapors & Shadows are imbued with his harmonic ideas – I really enjoy taking historic jazz concepts and giving them new energy from today. George was very prolific in his short life – the amount, breadth and quality of the music he created has truly inspired me.
“‘Oasis’ is freedom and lyrical art. It overflows with Hilton’s somersaulting narrative, lyricism in every note, turning and churning in on itself — expressed with thought, clarity, and the fusion of movement and texture. Hilton slips in a whirlwind of feeling in “Watercolor World,” as a painter would to her canvas — in splashes and spurts, behind your back. The composition unravels in ever-shifting threads, which she seems to brush and stroke back into a semblance of orderly life. Her aerial lifts bank up against contrasting, darker chords for that subtle textural context she’s known for.”
“Because of her serene manner, glorious stylings and superb leadership skills, this award winner has gained the respect of an array of living legends, and she has worked alongside MANY. It all translates into extraordinary music that is compared to jazz and classical icons. Lisa Hilton is RARE.”
“Reliably exceptional – that is how I would describe Lisa Hilton. … Her composing and performance could be described as existing between impressionism and expressionism, but the one thing all her performances have is a heartbeat. Swinging-ly grounded in the beat she establishes is where Hilton’s charm shines the brightest.”
C. Michael Bailey/All About Jazz
TOP 5 JAZZ ARTISTS OF 2018
ARTIST OF THE MONTH
“The new trio brilliantly showcase their collective abilities. OASIS has many merits: Lisa Hilton provides her stunning virtuosity beautifully and exquisitely”
Sounds of Timeless Jazz
“Hilton’s artistry never waivers…”
“Lisa Hilton shows her impressive composing skills as well as ability to create a sonic mood. She’s able to mix classical impressionistic moods a la Debussy, but with a swinging pulse.”
“Lazy Daisy has some of the same insouciant spirit as much of Paul Desmond’s 1969 album.”
Arts Journal/ Doug Ramsey
“Hilton takes it old school with a cool school set…the vibe is low key and the notes get your head bobbing. Mighty chops and good taste…another winner from a winner herself.”
“Hilton shows off her left-handed dexterity, while her right hand improvises brightly. Mark Whitfield Jr., keeps the trap drums strong beneath her up-tempo prowess. Luques Curtis, on bass, locks into the production to bring solid support.”
Musical Memoirs/Dee Dee McNeil