Twenty years ago, Brooklyn-based pianist/composer Cynthia Hilts
was seeking to form a band “that sounds like a celestial collision of Mingus and Debussy” as a vehicle for her brisk, striking originals. Her avant-meets-mainstream writing, as the band name Lyric Fury suggests, is demanding and defined by powerful contrasts.
Hilts and her octet have been honing a sound and a vision ever since, and their brilliant efforts are captured on their first recording together—the like-named Lyric Fury
—set for January 13 release by Hilts’s Blond Coyote imprint.
Lyric Fury boasts a lineup of top-drawer players with highly distinctive “A” games of their own. They include trumpet great and onetime Mingusite Jack Walrath, saxophonists Lisa Parrott and Lily White (who co-produced the album with Hilts), trombonist Deborah Weisz, cellist Marika Hughes, bassist Ratzo Harris, and drummer Scott Neumann.
The infectious opening track, “Those Basinites,” was inspired by the quirky residents of Basin, Montana, where Hilts did several residencies. But much of Hilts’s music, for which she writes her own poetic lyrics, responds to situations and events. “Previously a Thing,” a brash invocation that turns Horace Silver-style hard bop on its ear (dig White’s passionate tenor solo), was written after a breakup. The free-gliding “Blues for the Bronchs,” featuring out-of-sorts voicings and a ripping, hard-edged solo by Walrath, had its genesis in an unshakable case of bronchitis.
A seasoned peace activist, Hilts composed the album’s most lyrical and deeply affecting work, “Peace Now,” following the outbreak of the Iraq War. Her vocal—part scat, part chant, part heartfelt plea—is framed by the dark tones of Parrott’s baritone and Hughes’s cello and carried by bright rhythms. “Teacher,” with its delicate piano introduction and South African lilt, is a prayer for a spiritual leader.
Forming the octet proved a dream achievement in many ways. “I have always been a loner,” Hilts says. “I didn’t understand the value of community. But I certainly do now, having benefited so much from the openness and contributions of these musicians. When I bring in a new piece, they understand not to try and do something new with it right away, even in cases where I haven’t written something right. They sublimate their individuality for a moment or two. And during performances of the music, they’re always coming up with surprises. But it all works out in the end.”
Born and raised in Tucson, Cynthia Hilts grew up in a musical family. She went on to study jazz composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music with, among others, the late trumpeter and big band leader Herb Pomeroy, who also taught the likes of Gary Burton, Gary McFarland, and Toshiko Akiyoshi. “I was so excited to be there,” she says. “Herb taught harmonic subtleties with great precision and humor, for instance in his class ‘Writing in the Style of Duke Ellington.’”
Hilts moved to New York City in the early '90s. After appearing on a free jazz album, Invite the Unexpected, with Mike Ellis, George Garzone, Graham Haynes, and Cecil McBee, she wrote and recorded her first album, Stars Down to the Ground
, in Montana. Featuring local players, the 2000 release was commissioned by the Montana Artists Refuge—“the first time I’d been treated as a royal composer,” Hilts jokes.
Her self-produced second album, Second Story Breeze
(2008), showcased her distinctive singing, soulful post-bop piano playing, and sometimes daring arranging in a heady trio setting featuring bassist Ron McClure and drummer Jeff Williams.
After her time at Berklee, Hilts gained valuable experience in such places as San Francisco, Florida, Sweden, and France. She has performed in a variety of settings, including reggae and calypso bands (hear the reggae-fied “Jam & Toast” on the new album). She has contributed to film documentaries and has served as musical director for theater productions. She’s also an active visual artist.
Hilts is most at home, however, in Lyric Fury—the name of which came to her without any brainstorming or fanfare. “The group only expands my version of what the music should be, of who I am musically as a person,” she says. “It’s a real labor of love.”
Cynthia Hilts and Lyric Fury will celebrate the release of their new CD with a performance at Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn on Thursday, January 12. Looking ahead, the band is also booked at New York’s Baha’i Center, part of the Jazz Tuesdays series, on April 18; and at the Jazz on the Lake Festival in Lake George, NY September 16-17.