Pianist Lisa Hilton is one of the most relentlessly productive artists in jazz, but the critical class seems wholly ignorant of her work; her name never seems to pop up in discussions of who’s happening, who’s moving the music forward, who’s doing this or that. And yet, look at the personnel on the records she’s put out in the last decade, starting with 2007’s The New York Sessions. JD Allen. Marcus Gilmore. Larry Grenadier. Christian McBride. Lewis Nash. Jeremy Pelt. Christian McBride. Lewis Nash. Nasheet Waits. Steve Wilson. These are serious dudes, and they’ve done fantastic work performing Hilton’s compositions, as well as a broad range of covers, many drawn from the world of rock and including tunes by Green Day, the Black Keys, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, the Pixies, and others. And her own playing is in no way the weak link; she’s not paying these guys to grant her music a quality it would otherwise lack. Her arrangements balance looseness and cohesion, and grant her bandmates plenty of room for thoughtful statements of their own.
Hilton’s latest album, Nocturnal, came out in late 2015. (Get it from Amazon.) It features Terell Stafford on trumpet, Allen on tenor sax, Gregg August on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. The music is a mixture of classicist hard bop and more modern, adventurous ideas, all of it swinging and melodic. The title track is a foot-tapping re-recording of a piece from her previous release, 2014’s Horizons. (As she mentions in the interview below, she’s put out an album a year for the last 18 years.) The album also includes a version of the standard “Willow Weep for Me,” a virtually unrecognizable recasting of the Pixies‘ “Where Is My Mind?”, and Hilton’s first multi-part composition, the three-part, 15-minute “Midnight Sonata.” The horns aren’t present on every track; about half the album is devoted to piano trio material, allowing Hilton to demonstrate her mastery of the keyboard. While her compositions are frequently built around melodies of a Horace Silver-esque hookiness, there’s a lot of romanticism and classical technique in her solos. Her music offers a unique blend of concepts, and of past and future, that’s quite beautiful, without ever being placid or overly studied. Time to catch up, folks.
Stream Nocturnal on Spotify:
Lisa Hilton answered questions via email.
Your playing has a very classicist feel—it reminds me of Horace Silver and other melodic hard bop guys from the 1950s and 1960s. How did your style develop? Who are your biggest influences, and what are your goals as a composer?
I love that “classic” 1950s/early ’60s sound—Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Bird, and Count Basie, but also some McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, early Herbie Hancock, early Bill Evans, always Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington compositionally, and blues guys, especially Robert Johnson. You were right to hear the Horace Silver influence.
When I listen to that music today, there are aspects of the recording, compositional form, lyrics, etc. that can sound “dated” in some way. What makes a tune timeless? Why can we listen to Kind of Blue or Monk forever? If we are playing exactly the same notes and keys, why does the music sound so different in different eras, and why do harmonic ideas go in and out of style? Why are some compositions so strong that it doesn’t matter who plays them, they will always sound good, like “Blue in Green”? How can I take the ideas that I love from one era, and use them with other ideas that inspire me? This is how my “sound” has developed—mostly playing/listening to/thinking about these kind of ideas. I’m very curious about music and always like to explore new directions.
I also get a lot of ideas from art—I was an art major in college. I like using our jazz concepts: improvisation, free jazz, shifting modal key centers, polyrhythms, etc. in a “painterly” fashion. French composers like Debussy used harmonic “impressionism” but I like to use improvisational ideas in an impressionistic way. Seurat’s pointillism technique is something I have applied to music, for example.
My goal is always to create compositions/music that touch others positively, that communicates this shared world we live in, that is timeless and represents the times we live in. Music feels like my first language—it feels like I can create an experience compositionally/musically so that others can also feel that experience, much like a good writer being able to describe love, or a painter or photographer creating an image. I think I can compose/play the sound of twilight, of a warm summer’s day, of love or grief, of a subway or dolphins even. I think if you listen you can hear us playing and feel these experiences that are communicated in an impressionistic way, not as a narrative. I think of my/our music like abstract or non-figurative paintings.
Do you feel like you have a tougher road because you emerged independently, as a leader, rather than serving time as a sideman in someone else’s band first?
I have always needed to compose, so I haven’t had any desire to play in other bands. Many players that are sidemen are primarily “players” or “performers”—their greatest desire or need is to play their instrument or to just be on stage, although they might also compose or desire to be a leader. My greatest passion is to compose and then share those compositions. I don’t believe you can really teach an art. You can teach basic technique, you can show others some directions, but I believe art is a path you follow and it teaches you along the way. I think that jazz or classical music is the only art form where we encourage playing the same thing, like jazz standards, that someone else created, over and over for decades or centuries. Imagine writing the same book every year, or a chef cooking the same dinner forever? Imagine making every art student paint old pictures before they get to paint their own?
Your career kind of shifted gears starting with 2007’s The New York Sessions, as you began collaborating with a bunch of really highly regarded New York players. What sparked that, and how did you connect with those guys?
I always feel the music I write at any time propels me in the direction I need to take. I had been playing with some musicians in L.A. but my favorite players were out of NYC. Somehow I was able to put the recording session together with the most incredible band: Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Jeremy Pelt and Steve Wilson! How did that happen? I am originally from a small town and had relatively little experience. So it really felt like a gift and some kind of magic in my favor, so I felt I had to up my game to walk into that studio, Avatar, as the “leader.” I couldn’t sleep the night before I was so stressed, so that didn’t help either! But the minute the music started, I knew I was in the right place and the stress dissipated. I always produce my albums and put the bands together on my own—I really think hard about the sound I am looking for and then imagine how the players would work together; I really think about the music and the interactions. My guidelines have always been to work with the best people who are also nice, and fortunately that’s who I’ve worked with. It goes without saying that for that particular recording, they were extending themselves to me—they are great musicians, but they were generous and kind as well. I don’t think there is anyone who is more fun to be in the studio with than CMB, by the way! He has such a great big personality along with that big bass sound of his.
You perform a fair amount of jazz standards, but you’ve also recorded songs by Joni Mitchell, the Black Keys, the Pixies, Green Day, Marvin Gaye…what inspires your more unorthodox choices, especially considering that you don’t try to keep the “rock” feel of the arrangements?
Because I compose myself, it really feels better to me to play my own compositions. As great as Ellington is, when I play his music I feel like I am wearing my parents’ clothes (or my grandparents’). Gershwin’s New York sounds way different than New York today. I prefer to play what New York sounds like today. That said, if I’m going to play another composer’s work, it’s going to be a really great composition, and they can come from any era. Black Keys are a blues-based band—that relates to American blues. Billie Joe Armstrong is a terrific composer. “What’s Going On” is a still a message for our times. I do try and support women composers too: Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, and recently Ann Ronell. Although it’s not quite true, it does seem like women got the right to vote before they were accepted as composers, so I like to support them too.
You recorded “Nocturnal” twice—on your new album, and on your previous one. What made you decide to revisit that tune, and to make it the title track of the album?
Normally with each album there is one tune that is the taking-off point for the next group of musical ideas/concept that lead to an album (although I don’t realize that at the time). I also felt that I hadn’t gotten the recording that I wanted—that the tune was a good composition, but hadn’t perhaps matured yet. I feel fine about re-recording a tune; I counted once that Monk recorded one composition 23 times!
You’ve released an album a year for the last decade, except in 2013 when you put out two albums. How do you maintain this level of creativity?
Every year it’s the same: I finish an album/promotion/tour, and I feel “done.” Every year I think, “I don’t need to do anything else—I’m good—I can sit out for a while.” Then every year, a little idea starts to pop out here, then there, and then it’s an armful of ideas all begging to be listened to and worked on. When we think of other art forms, we wouldn’t expect a writer to stop writing, or a poet to quit. There is an interest and a desire and an internal commitment I have that makes it impossible to not create. There are times I actually tell myself to slow down composing for a while, but I also feel grateful that I have a lot of ideas. I think the music is always inside of me, and when I take the time to listen and explore it just starts to push its way out. It comes very easily, although it still is a lot of work time-wise. After the composition is done, I have to take time to learn how to play the music the way I hear it. In a sense the creative part can be easier than the playing part. I also make all the charts up for the band to refer to.
(Note: I have done an album a year for 18 years now. I also have 2 albums in Asia).
What are the challenges of marketing your music? Given your look and the general expectations of the jazz community, are people surprised when you don’t sing, for example?
There are more marketing tools to use all the time—figuring out what works is what we all hope to find, right? I think the entire world is trying to answer that question!
I am often asked if I sing. I compose, I play the piano, I produce, and I’m a bandleader, but I consider my piano as my true “voice.” There has been a lot written about how in the past, women were really only “allowed” to be singers, since they were not considered to be “real” musicians (some non-vocalists got around this by marrying a jazz artist or being in an all-girl band), so that is probably what is behind the question if I sing or not. Fortunately, most people know better now, but the older stereotypes can still remain. The numbers of female composers and musicians who are not vocalists in jazz in America is growing but it’s still small. We all care about diversity, but diversity should also include women as composers, producers, musicians, or bandleaders from all backgrounds (mine is Dutch). I am inspired by musicians like the great classical pianist Yuja Wang, who is almost singlehandedly knocking down the classical gender barriers with her very petite hands! Hopefully the U.S. is becoming more welcoming to non-vocalist jazz musicians who are girls too.
You do a lot of work with the blind. What inspired you to choose that cause?
I like to give what I would have liked to receive, and growing up in a small town, we did not get to see professional musicians at my school—I just thought that the maybe the blind students would enjoy the music. What I didn’t realize at the time is that many students who have visual impairments also have multiple disabilities. That first time, I found it quite challenging to play the piano—it touched my heart so much, but I did it again the following year. I thought if music meant so much to me, it probably would mean more if I were blind. When the Perkins School, Helen Keller’s alma mater, heard that I had played for Camp Bloomfield for the Blind, they asked me to come to Boston to perform there, then the Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired heard about me and asked me to go there, and then Junior Blind of America emailed me, and then Berklee College of Music got in touch too. A simple idea that I had has grown, and continues twenty years later. One of the things I appreciate about jazz is that when you play together as a band, it doesn’t matter if you are tall or short, boy or girl, black or white—the only thing that matters is your spirit and your abilities that you bring with you as a musician. When you are around people with visual disabilities you are not being judged on what you are wearing, your size, or the color of your hair—people without sight react to your spirit. It’s a really cool feeling to be “judged” on who you are as a person, not what you look like, and I love it. I have also found over the years that students with disabilities get less arts support than public or private schools—those that could use it even more, get much much less. This does seem wrong to me, so I try and bring awareness to this fact. These days there is a lot of technology that helps to level the playing field for people with disabilities, and it’s time to be more aware of supporting those technologies and giving people with disabilities the access we take for granted. To me, it’s a civil rights issue for our times. Once upon a time in jazz, black musicians were not treated properly, and in today’s world, I don’t think we are treating those with disabilities as fairly as we should. It was so cool at the Grammys that Stevie Wonder called attention to these issues when he “read” the winner of the Grammy award with Braille type and shouted out the needs of those with disabilities.