LISA HILTON often settles in at her piano and riffs on everyone from Miles Davis & Horace Silver to The Black Keys or Green Day, where she can find peace within the notes, letting them fill the room and then fall where they languish in this glow of calm with a touch of brooding blues. But then this past year, the world changed a bit and finding that calm seemed a little more elusive.
“Everything is charged with politics, a large portion of our world seems to be emigrating, and climate catastrophe seems constant,” Hilton says. “There’s been so much turmoil lately; we can’t find a sense of peace surfing the internet or social networks – we need really positive sources to balance out this time of disruption in our lives.”
For her 20th album—Hilton has recorded an album a year since 1997—she wanted to provide uplift and relief, where listeners can be energized and feel rejuvenated. This became theme for her latest release, the aptly titled ESCAPISM. The album includes the Alan Lerner & Burton Lane standard, “On A Clear Day” and nine Hilton originals ranging from the high-voltage opener, “Hot Summer Samba” to the introspective and ethereal “Mojave Moon.” Each composition seems to generate, by albums end, a mental release or escape all its own.
“Artists have an important role in our culture and community – it is through art and music that our souls and spirits can be energized, balanced and entertained – we all need to “escape” from our challenges. I want our music to be a positive force whether you’re listening on the subway, while at work or lounging on a tropical island! Our music embraces the good experiences in our world.”
After working solo on last year’s Day & Night release, Hilton brought back her compadres JD Allen (tenor sax), Terrell Stafford (trumpet/flugelhorn), Gregg August (bass) and Rudy Royston (drums) into Avatar Studios for one of the last sessions at that revered and storied studio before it became property of Berklee College of Music on September 1st. “It was definitely nostalgic being at Avatar the last few days before it changed ownership since no one really knows what will happen to it – we hope good things. I have recorded ten albums there and I love the rooms, they have a special sound and ambience. I think the entire band knew this recording was a time to savor the sense of the place – there were excellent solos going on, and we had a great sound captured by our engineer, a true sound icon, James Farber. What tremendous musicians and all leaders in their own right – I feel so fortunate to continue to work again and again with them. In fact, they call me “Sis” now!”
Avatar Studios, formerly called The Power Station, was the recording studio of choice for a who’s who of artists: Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, John Mayer, Muse, Josh Groban, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, David Bowie, and Bruno Mars with many gold and platinum albums created there. “Every session, before going in I’m in awe of all that greatness created in those rooms, but I go for a different kind of creativity,” Hilton explains, “I have always followed the Miles Davis approach in producing in that we do not rehearse at all. We roll and record from the first moment on, and we never overdub or Auto Tune either – it keeps us all on our toes, but I think the music feels more authentic when it isn’t perfect – more soul comes through that way.”
Escapism is an audiophile’s delight from the team of top engineers that Lisa Hilton has worked with for years; besides recording engineer James Farber, it was mixed by 23-time Grammy-winning engineer, Al Schmitt, at the legendary Capitol Studios in Hollywood and mastered by multi-Grammy winner Gavin Lurssen.
The opening track, “Hot Summer Samba”, twirls in multiple Latin rhythms and melodic ideas that Hilton composed to start the album moving; a loosening-up-of-the-collar/inhibitions tune, so-to-speak. That track segues into the fast-paced trio work of “Meltdown”, a wow to push on through. Hilton’s melodic touch is evident in “Another Everyday Adventure”, and the closer “Utopia Cornucopia”, both soundtracks to finding wonderland anywhere anytime, where you least expect it. Although Hilton does not record many covers, her arrangement of Lerner & Lane’s classic “On A Clear Day” calms and inspires, suggested by the unsung lyrics “On a clear day… you’ll feel part of every mountain sea and shore.” The track highlights her excellent trio mates – while showcasing Hilton’s ability to the interpret classics in new ways. The jaunty solo piece, “Escape Velocity Blues”, seems to channel Neal Hefti and Count Basie, but is all Hilton with her signature touch on the keys. The beauty of Allen’s tenor sax and Stafford’s clear flugelhorn, alongside her own pianism, shine through on “Zero Gravity”. Tracks “Too Hot” and “29 Palms” are envelopes of a different kind of space, reaching in evocative and seemingly narrative directions.
Hilton’s previous album, Day and Night was a solo piano effort which had many critics discussing the richness of her performances, as Jeff Tamarkin of JazzTimes noted: “Closer scrutiny reveals nuanced choices and numerous unforeseen turns. Hilton, brings an emotionalism to the simplest of ideas; layers of depth appear when you least expect them.” And “Hilton is in player in full command of the nuances of her instrument. Her approach is a welcome expanse of dynamics and tonal variety, enabling her to conjure aural pictures in a richly impressionistic style. Memorably resonant original songs….and gentle pianistic fireworks” was noted by George Kanzler at Hothouse Jazz. And Jazz stations around the globe, from Hawaii to France and Russia and Madrid gave the album some truly high marks, and extensive radio play, summed up by Jeffrey Seigel of the Straight No Chaser podcast: “Day and Night allows Lisa Hilton to keep the spotlight for herself, and she does not disappoint. She has both the chops and soul to keep you constantly listening.”
Hilton is considered one of the most distinctive composers and pianists in jazz today, her compositions drawing on classical traditions, twentieth century modernists, and the avant-garde as much as they look back to icons of American jazz and blues. Hilton’s blues inflected trans-genre or poly-genre style influences extend beyond jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Horace Silver and Duke Ellington, to include bluesman Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson, minimalists like Steve Reich, current rockers Black Keys or modernists Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Bartok. Originally from a small town on California’s central coast, Hilton studied classical and twentieth century piano formally from the age of eight, where she was inspired by her great uncle, Willem Bloemendall, (1910-1937), a young Dutch piano virtuoso. In college though, due to the lack of creativity in the program, she became a music school drop out, switching majors and receiving a degree in art instead. Ever since becoming a professional musician, this background in the fine arts has well informed Hilton’s composition process. “These days I explore music as art, building the composition with musical elements then ‘painting’ texture and color through various jazz approaches,” Hilton explains. “I am always searching for new ways of expressing our life today.”
As an artist working with award-winning musicians and engineers, Hilton has produced 20 albums and over 200 iTunes tracks through her publishing company Lisa Hilton Music. Known for her warmth and leadership while showcasing diversity on stage, Hilton plays top venues and clubs coast-to-coast and continues to work with this era’s jazz luminaries. Her releases appear on radio charts year after year for over a decade and have been heard on hundreds of radio stations around the world.
Committed to helping students who are often overlooked, for many years Hilton has regularly spent time to help blind students at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who are Blind or Visually Impaired, The Junior Blind of America in Los Angeles, Camp Bloomfield for the Blind in California, or The Berklee College in Boston and their adaptive music lab for visually impaired musicians.“I enjoy extending help to those with physical disabilities – music should be for everyone,” Hilton explains.
Lisa Hilton will premiere ESCAPISM with JD Allen, Luques Curtis, and Rudy Royston at 8pm on January 11th, 2018, at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
“Lisa’s breadth of creativity and range of ideas are astounding as she reveals the virtuosity of her pianism, musicality and artful sound.”
Sounds of Timeless Jazz
“…a hot, happening date that charts a new course for pianist Hilton.”