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Lisa Hilton

When I first received Lisa Hilton’s current CD The New York Sessions a few months ago, I thought, ‘Oh, no here we go again another album full of piano solos.’ Contrary to my fears, I found some refreshing, well orchestrated tracks that mixed new arrangements for contemporary pop tunes such as Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” more groove oriented tunes like Ray Charles’ “A Bit Of Soul,” as well as standards such as Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” and Thelonius Monk’s “Epistrophy.”  There are also seven excellently composed originals from Hilton’s own hand. 
I spoke to Hilton just a few weeks after reviewing the CD and found her to be as refreshing and delightful as her music. There were no rehearsed answers to questions, no high level philosophies expounded as to the nature of the world we live in, or the state of the music industry, but instead just a very simple casual conversation in which she shared why she loves music, how integral it is to her personal well being, and what she hopes to convey to the listener. 
“Composing is like falling in love, it is very exciting. When I compose, it is about something that I have heard and I am interested in, but it has to be nurtured along. When you see something that you like in a person, or like something that you have heard about them say you go, ‘Hmmm, there is something interesting about that person.’ The relationship then has to be nurtured,” Hilton says, while making the point that her compositions originate in much the same way. After seeing or experiencing something that catches her attention she tries to capture that feeling or experience in her writing.
“When I have a feeling inside of me that I have to communicate I can do it better musically then I can with words. I don’t feel satisfied until I can communicate that thought or experience. It is a need. Composers have a need to compose, and tell the world how they feel about something. I do it musically. It is not like I want to write today, as much as I need to write today.  I don’t sit around saying that I need to do something with diminished sevenths today. I don’t say I am going to write something based on the Iliad. I write about personal observations, emotions and experiences. It is like my personal scrapbook,” says Hilton. 
One of the composer/pianist’s greatest attributes is her ability to be vulnerable before an audience and in her music. That ability conveys authenticity and allows her to tap into her listeners’ emotions. “I think that if you are cautious as a composer or a performer, then you are not connecting with people. I would be hiding how I feel about certain things. It (the music) probably would not do very well, so I try to be as honest as I can, and that means being vulnerable. If I am feeling something, then it means most likely other people are feeling the same thing.
In knowing, the attraction that Hilton has for emotive charts, it is therefore not surprising that she included the Johnny Mandel / Johnny Mercer (lyrics) song “Emily,” on The New York Sessions.   
“I think, “Emily,” chose me (she laughs). It has the elements that are important to me. You cannot help think of the melody. The words are very touching to me. I thought, ‘This guy is so in love with Emily. He is saying her name over and over again.’ I can relate to that because when you are in love you become mesmerized by the other person. I tried to play that song as though I was daydreaming about somebody else, and with all of the things that you think about,” she says. 
She goes on to add, “A lot of jazz has gotten (to the point) where it is too technical, and I like all that stuff too. I have played with great players, and I am fans of all those great players, but I want (my music) to be so simple that it screams at you. There is a place for all different kinds of jazz and different types of expression. I think that if it is all improvisation, or it is all technique, then you probably missed the boat. It is like being an awesome basketball player who never wins, who cares?  The individual is an awesome player but the team isn’t winning. I think that if you are an awesome musician and you aren’t communicating anything, what’s the point?”  
When you listen to Hilton compare the exhilaration that she feels while playing the piano to skiing downhill, it is difficult to believe that there was a time in her life when she walked away from playing for ten years.  “I just didn’t think there was a future (for me). Because I am classically trained (as a pianist), I thought the only thing that I could do was something classically oriented. I came from a small town, and there were not a lot of options. That is why I enjoy working with kids (she works with the visually impaired), because I want people who love music to know that there are all kinds of things that you can do. There are a lot of different things you can do such as becoming an engineer or a producer. For instance, I am really a composer, and I never thought of jazz as an option. At the time, I thought the only direction I could take was classical. It was a long time for me to walk away. I feel as though returning to music has saved my life. I can pretty well take anything that is thrown at me, because I am really happy to be back at music. It is my first love,” she says.
Hilton is heavily involved with the production side of her projects and it gives her a different way to channel her creative abilities. “Being a producer is like taking a home and remodeling it, or doing a beauty makeover. You are taking raw material and coming up with a finished product. That is more like work, but you have a sense of pride afterwards. Producing (a CD) takes creativity too, putting the right people together and making editing decisions. All of that affects the end product,” she says. 
One of the major decisions any artist faces when creating a new studio project is what songs should appear on the album. As we alluded to earlier, Hilton has made some excellent choices. The tracks that appear reflect her personal commitment to leaving the listener with music that will long outlive her. “When I play something, I try to play things that are timeless. I have recorded quite a bit of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (on her various projects). Those pieces could have been written today. Other composers are very much of their time period, and when I play their pieces from the thirties, they sound like they are from the thirties. Even when I play them with contemporary arrangements, they sound old fashioned. I want to create music that is timeless,” explains Hilton.
Continuing with her musings Hilton says, “My music is a little different than most music being played today. That makes me feel a little insecure, because it is not exactly the jazz that you hear all of the time. It takes from a variety of forces such as, classical influences, standards, classic jazz, contemporary jazz and even rock. I think that is what people like these days. We don’t want everything the same.”
Lisa Hilton’s music flows from her heart and so it came as no surprise to me to hear her say, “I feel that music is a gift that has been given to me, and I want to share it with other people. That is my goal. It is so incredible what I get to do and feel. I hope that I can take anyone who is listening to the same place. I hope to touch other people’s lives, their spirits and their hearts.  

By Joe Montague, exclusive rights reserved

Joe Montague is an internationally published journalist / photographer and the publisher of Riveting Riffs, . His ministry is dedicated to the memory of his late son Kent David Montague who went to heaven at the age of 18. All copyright and distribution rights remain the property of Joe Montague. 


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