Can jazz be green and blue, and still sunny? “I hope so,” responds critically-acclaimed composer, pianist and producer Lisa Hilton of her newest release, twilight & blues
(1012 Ruby Slippers Productions). “As an artist I think it’s possible to play your passion as well as your conscious. There are so many concerns about our planet now that I wanted to include some iconic songs that have been able to touch hearts of all ages for decades, while still addressing important social concerns as well.” Set for release August 17th, 2009, “twilight & blues” is Hilton’s eleventh CD and features stellar musicians Lewis Nash
on drums, FLY
on bass, and top young horns Jeremy Pelt
on trumpet and JD Allen
on tenor sax. Fourteen-time Grammy-winning engineer/producer Al Schmitt recorded and mixed the five Hilton-penned originals and five cover tracks.
“I’ve always been a fan of the blues, and have worked over the years to create songs that reflect life today, while still retaining the expressive soul that is so appealing and indigenous to the blues art form,” said Hilton. “While some of the tracks on ‘twilight & blues’ are upbeat and fun, others are thoughtful or bluesy.” Hilton has included such ageless and legendary tracks as Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Going On,” Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” an intriguing cover of “Kozmic Blues” by Janis Joplin, and a deeply introspective version of the all time classic, “Moon River,” by Henry Mancini.
“To take an iconic song like ‘What’s Going On’ and do meaningful and emotional arrangements for the piano is a distinct new direction in jazz,” Hilton adds, “It’s about taking tradition and moving it along and still being able to make a statement that is meaningful and conveys the original, heartfelt message of the song as it relates to the issues we are facing today. Even the Joplin lyrics express a longing to make a difference. I think songs like these fit our world today, and create great jazz as well.”
Alongside these classics are the new songs penned by Hilton including “Pandemonium” (ad ode to the absolute craziness of daily life); “City Streets,” which as the title suggests depicts life in a big, modern, tumultuous city; the bittersweet “Blue For You” and “Twilight,” a reference to the time of day which Hilton finds to be the most beautiful, calming and introspective. “There is an emotional honesty, expressiveness, and realness to this music that I believe in and embrace.” Hilton elaborates, “To me, simplicity in the production allows the listener to really feel the emotions of the composer, and has an uplifting effect. There is no orchestra, no overdubbing or elaborate sampling going on here. Just some amazing playing by some of the best jazz musicians on the planet!” The result is another unique and appealing recording, shimmering throughout with Hilton’s piano.
Hilton’s interest in the blues dates back to her teen years growing up in a sleepy California town where instrumental music was always being played at home by her three sisters, as well as by her mother, an accountant. Her father, a college professor, didn’t play an instrument, but her grandfather was a violinist and her great uncle, an accomplished Dutch pianist. Most teens would probably opt for rock concerts, but the first live show Hilton saw was the classic blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. “They seemed very old, and really cool by my teenage standards. I was also a big B.B. King fan in those days too.” Originally self-taught on the piano, Hilton began studying classical and twentieth century composers at the age of eight and developed a passion for the blues and jazz in her teens.
In college in San Francisco, the conservative teaching style of the curriculum led Hilton to abruptly quit the piano, and finish with a degree in art instead of music, which led her to a career as an art director. Being an artist remained a goal, and when her love for the piano and composing was reignited by songwriter/producer David Foster, Hilton found a way to combine her long-lost passions into the accomplished artist that she is now. With eleven albums in about as many years, over 140 digital tracks stateside, and two additional CD’s with Evolution/Asia, this prolific composer/pianist is no longer under the radar, and the attention of the media has been aroused. Reviews include “A top notch piano player” All About Jazz, “Refined” NY Jazz Improv, “Her compositional skills are second to none”, The Sounding Board, “Stunning looks and genuine talent” Jazziz, “Throbbing under the current of West Coast cool” Midwest Records, “Impressive talents” JazzChicago.net, “She’s at the top of the jazz piano genre” Wind & Wire, and from JazzReview.com, “Seductive.”
Hilton’s penchant for playing with some of the most respected names in jazz today has also caught attention around the world. Past recordings have included Christian McBride, Steve Wilson, Tal Bergman, Brice Winston, Bobby Militello and Reggie McBride amongst others. Her current band for “twilight & blues” has the experience and chops that make them the best of their current generation and for generations to come. Lewis Nash appears annually on Downbeat’s Top Drummer’s poll, and lists gigs with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and Diana Krall, as well as leading his own septet. Bassist Larry Grenadier tours extensively with Brad Mehldau, but also has recorded with Chris Potter, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Chick Corea and others, as well as his band Fly with Glen Ballard and Mark Turner. Berklee grad, Jeremy Pelt has appeared the last five years as a DownBeat Rising Star trumpeter, and received the attention of Nat Hentoff in an extensive Wall Street Journal article. Pelt is a leader of his own band, but also has performed with others such as Nancy Wilson, Cedar Walton, and Ravi Coltrane. Detroit native and tenor saxman, J. D. Allen, won the Best New Artist award in Italy/1999, and a Critics Pick Top Ten Album with Jazziz/2002. He has toured and played with Cindy Blackman, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Dave Douglas and Jack DeJohnette to name a few.
“Listening to the solos of my band mates on “twilight & blues”, I hear the presence of greatness”, Hilton remarks. The level of musicianship is matched equally with the top recording artistry of Al Schmitt. Although Schmitt has an extensive roster dating back to Duke Ellington, including all of perennial jazz favorite Diana Krall’s albums, Schmitt has also recorded numerous other jazz luminaries such as Danillo Perez, Taylor Eigsti and Bill Evans.
Any discussion of Hilton is incomplete without a mention of her support of music programs for kids and teens, especially those that are blind or visually impaired. Working with The Perkins School for the Blind outside of Boston, The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, and the Junior Blind of America, Hilton has been called a “musical ambassador” by CBS/Boston in the segment they aired on her. World peace is another area of concern she has. On her 2008 acclaimed album, “Sunny Day Theory,” Hilton donated proceeds from the Pete Seeger composition “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” to The Carter Center for their work towards world peace, cartercenter.org.
Concludes Hilton, “There’s a shift that I feel, that somehow I hope we have conveyed; jazz is going in new directions – and it's not about modes or grandstanding. I think it's important for the world to connect right now with meaningful songs. I hope everyone starts pondering ‘What's Going On’ again and thinking about it's message, or what Joni Mitchell means when she writes ‘It’s time to get back to the garden’. It’s about bigger issues than just our album--it's about jazz standing up and saying ‘these things are important and we hope you will listen, enjoy and please think about it too.’”
So can jazz be socially aware, bluesy and still upbeat? You get the feeling that with Hilton, anything and everything is possible.