Riveting Riffs Logo One Lisa Hilton Is Nocturnal

Lisa Hilton Photo Three By George Brooks


Jazz pianist and composer Lisa Hilton who makes her home in Malibu, California recently released her eighteenth album, titled Nocturnal and this time she combines both Jazz and Classical elements for some of her compositions. She also previously released in Asia, two compilation albums and she has one vinyl. Ms. Hilton debuted her new album at Carnegie Hall in January (2016) and radio stations such as KVNF in Colorado, Virginia’s WTJU and WUNH in New Hampshire have given her the thumbs up. Those accolades however are not restricted to America, as they have also flowed in from places such as Australia, Spain and Italy. Lisa Hilton’s albums are entirely instrumental, which also helps to create a broader international audience.

“I thought my concert at Carnegie Hall went really well and I felt really good about my band and we performed what was very exciting and different for me. It was my third time at Carnegie Hall.

I was doing “Midnight Sonata,” and I had never done a piece of music that is essentially twenty minutes long. Stuff like that is fun and exciting for musicians. We always want to do the hard and complicated, so those things are fun and interesting to us. It was my first time stepping up to that level for a longer piece of music. What was most important to me was how it came through and when I finished playing it I saw someone in the audience do a two thumbs up. That person mouthed the word beautiful. 

Afterwards I asked a couple of people whom I respect for their opinions and they said that the sonata was beautiful.

That was a big exciting moment. I played it as a trio and I also had horn players for other pieces, but the sonata was just for the trio. (For some) upcoming (concerts) I am going to play solo piano, so there will be a little bit more on my shoulders. I am very excited about playing solo, because musicians really like challenges and I have not played solo for a little bit. When I am playing with a band I have to make sure that I leave room for everybody and when I play solo I have to make sure that I fill up all those nooks and crannies. I am kind of exaggerating, but it is a different approach and I am excited about it. It feels good to return to solo for right now. I have had some great band experiences and now I am enjoying doing the solo thing.

I don’t know why, but we (musicians) are voracious and we want to try new and juicy things whether that means a sonata or whether that means playing solo or whether that means doing something that is free Jazz.  It is always so much fun to do that kind of a thing. It is probably more like an athlete that likes a good hard game more than a lazy practice,” says Lisa Hilton.

Lisa Hilton Photo One by David ArsenaultThe title song “Nocturnal,” opens the album and it takes us on a spirited ride through the urban nightlife with a montage of colors, sounds and images. At times for a few fleeting seconds you see a face, but not the entire face, maybe just eyes or you may see a hand or the silhouette of a person. The images sometimes dissolve or fade into other images and at other times they simply give way to new images as the scenery shifts sharply. Antonio Sanchez on drums and Lisa Hilton on piano establish a quick tempo and the video compliments the song nicely.

Talking about her music video for “Nocturnal,” Ms. Hilton says, “I think of my music as art and I want to work with someone who will create a piece of art that is inspired by my music. Just like I do with the musicians with whom I work with, I don’t really tell them what to do. I don’t sit there and tell Antonio Sanchez how to play the drums and I don’t tell J.D. Allen how to blow his saxophone either.  I am respectful of the people that I work with, so I give general directions, but much as you would if you hired an architect you would say I want this kind of a house and I want it to be about this size. I want to create this kind of a mood. You would not sit there and measure walls with (architects). That’s how I am with all of the people that I work with and that was the same with the video artist James Grant. He has done three videos for me now. He is very talented and he is very young. I think he is maybe twenty-four and he does a remarkable job. Jazz is impressionistic and Jazz is abstract painting. I think that is what he created in the videos. I thought that was very cool and some of it is abstract with the shapes he uses, the subtle colors and different techniques that create kaleidoscope effects.  I was really pleased and as in most cases I didn’t know what Terell Stafford (trumpet and flugelhorn) was going to play. I didn’t know what James Grant was going to come up with, but I thought it was pretty exciting. The video is upbeat and so is the music.

James Grant does his interpretation and I think that anyone for any particular song of mine has their own interpretation. Some of the past videos have dealt more with nature, but I was dealing more with emotions on this album. An impressionistic way (worked out well).”

Lisa Hilton talks about the inspiration for her song “Nocturnal,” “I like the night and I like the energy of the night and if I wake up in the middle of the night it doesn’t bother me. Most people if they wake up in the middle of the night they go oh God I can’t get to sleep. That’s not me. I wake up and I love the energy. I have to try not to get excited in the middle of the night, but sometimes I do. I enjoy the daytime, but I like the night too.  I wanted to convey that happiness, it’s nighttime and I’m up and I like it. I have a feeling there are a lot of people who feel the same way too. I really want to convey that it is night and I like it. It is almost like when you are a kid and you would sneak out of bed and you would stay up late. There is that little sense of freedom that you have. There is no work to do or phones to answer and just a sense of freedom. When things are really quiet especially for creative people you can just get a ton of ideas (she laughs and says) they are not always good ideas. I get a lot of ideas (and then she says it again for emphasis) I get a lot of ideas. I really enjoy that time. It is not in the video, because he is portraying going out and that worked well. It wouldn’t be quite so exciting if we were just staring up at the sky (she laughs). It was from a young person’s perspective, but has the sense of positive feelings.

It was the opener for the album. Whenever I do an album there is one song that leads into the next album. It is a train of thought that I am having and it just leads on to the next one. When I did the album Horizons I really liked “Nocturnal,” but it probably didn’t fit so well on that one, but as I was working on the new album I thought, oh boy that song fits perfectly. In fact, I got a better recording of it. Sometimes when a song is new it is a little immature and it hasn’t quite grown up. I (may not be) quite as familiar with it and I am not really feeling that I am getting as much out of it as I would like to. I thought it was a good song, but it wasn’t delivering for me in my mind the way that I thought it could and so now I love the new recording of it.  With Antonio Sanchez on the introduction I love that.”

Lisa Hilton refers to her current album Nocturnal as being a collection of songs that explore the emotional side more so than her past recordings.

“Every year when I enter my creative period that normally starts around April I start asking myself questions about music, composing and art in general. One of the ideas that came to me last spring was what constitutes a great composition?  What is it that separates the truly great pieces of music throughout time? There are a whole bunch of answers to that. One of the things that did come to mind is they deal with depth of emotion.

Lisa Hilton Photo ThreeThere are certainly plenty of tunes that are light and upbeat and that are very superficial and they are fun too.  I am not saying that “Jack and Jill,” is not a good tune, but I am saying over time those pieces that we really (like) have some great emotion attached. One simple example would be Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. He is a very emotional and compassionate composer, but that one really stands out to me.  Joni Mitchell probably has twenty albums or maybe more, but the one that stands out is Blue. Miles Davis had many, many albums and the one that (stands out) more than any other album throughout time is Kind of Blue. Those are just off the top of my head examples. I thought well maybe I should try to reach for some deeper emotions on this (album). It was an interesting kind of a journey compositionally and I am really glad that I did it. I hope that it connects with the audience and that is all that you can hope. We are all human and we all have similar emotions, thoughts, feelings, impressions and maybe if you can connect through a similar expression you can connect with your audience closer. That has always been my goal to communicate with others. We will see.

I am always working on multiple levels on an album and when I am working on an album there is not a title (yet). The title comes in the last few weeks and it is always kind of difficult. It is very rare to have the title upfront. Probably the only time when I did that was with Midnight In Manhattan, but that is pretty rare to get a title upfront.  I am (however) working with deeper emotions. I am also working on musical concepts as well.

What am I experiencing musically? On (the album) Kaleidoscope it was taking different genres, ideas, tempos and putting them together. For Horizons I was dealing with what I see in nature and I was trying to express that. Musically I was trying to take Classical ideas and use Jazz concepts with them.  Now that has been done in the past and that is nothing new, but I think the approach that I was taking is more like a sandwich rather than a patchwork or just adding Classical flourishes, that’s not what I was doing. The bones and the foundation were Classical and while I was doing that I was asking myself, what is Classcial? What do I like about it and what don’t I like about it? Then I took Jazz concepts and used them within that framework. Our Jazz concepts (such as) the interesting harmonic ideas, improvisation, free Jazz, floating modo, key centers, Blues and then adding a more defined structure that you would find in Classical music. I felt like I was taking my favorite parts of Jazz and my favorite parts of Classical and kind of melding them together. When you listen you can hear the structured part in the melody, but when it becomes improvisational it sounds a little more intriguing or it grabs your ears. That was the underlying concept,” she says.  

There are two songs on Noctural that were written by others, “Willow Weep For Me,” by Ann Ronell and “Where Is My Mind?” written by Frank Black (also known as Black Francis and Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV) of the American band the Pixies.  The Pixies’ tune was adapted from its original form as an alternative song driven by an acoustic guitar.

“Where Is My Mind?” even though it is by the Pixies, has a very strong Classical kind of a melody. A Classical idea can be applied to all kinds of music and I took that incredible, beautiful melody and I did a conceptual approach to it. When you are (experiencing strong) emotions there are times when you feel a little crazy. We feel like we are not quite in control, as we would like to be. We are not ourselves. We don’t feel or act or speak like we normally do and we question what is going on? My mind even feels different. That is what “Where Is My Mind?” represented. 

I had a girlfriend who was going through a stressful situation and she couldn’t stop talking about it. She didn’t look like herself and she didn’t sound like herself. This is where our minds can really get out of control.

I don’t know what Frank Black meant in his version of “Where Is My Mind?” and although I read the story about how it was written, I don’t really know what he had in mind. There are always about three reasons behind every song.

Lisa Hilton plays the piano exquisitely for her song “Seduction,” an aptly titled tune that seduces the listener with its beauty, elegance and subtle accompaniment by Antonio Sanchez (drums) and Gregg August (bass). The song is one that has been with Ms. Hilton for a while and the conversation between player and piano has the familiarity of two old friends. She refers to it as being “still fun to play.”

Lisa Hilton had been working on another song “Twist of Fate,” originally intended for Nocturnal, but after realizing it was not a good fit for this album and now being short one song she turned to an old familiar pal in “Seduction.” It was the first time that she had done the song as a trio.

She also turned to a second old friend with the recording once again of “Twilight,” that first appeared on her album Twilight and Blues.

“I hadn’t felt good about that particular recording, so I wanted to revisit it. It is a tune that is very upbeat. I wanted to do some different things with it and I added in a little free Jazz. A lot of times people think that free Jazz sounds crazy and it is normally used in that fashion. For me I always try to use newer or different ways or slightly different and so I use it in an evocative fashion. To me it gives that feeling of twilight and the sound of a rambling and sparkling,” she says.

The pretty song “An August Remembered,” closes out Lisa Hilton’s album Nocturnal.

“It is such a simple song and I was hoping that it would really touch people. When I ask people what their favorite song (of mine) is they always say, well I really like “Seduction.” Because it is so simple I was worried if it would come out or not.

In August of 1999, I felt like my life was…I don’t know there are certain points in your life when it feels like every day is perfect and beautiful and peaceful and I would walk up the canyon where I used to live and there were all of these little butterflies that would flutter as I walked down the canyon. It made me feel like I had fairy magic or something. It was such a perfect, beautiful and golden hued moment.

August is my favorite month, because it feels like it is your last chance at summer and it is not too hot at the end of August or September. They are beautiful days and everyone is spending time outdoors. I always wanted to remember this particular time, so I wrote the tune and I called it “August 1999.”  I thought that sounded really cool, because it was just before the new millennium (she laughs). Remember when it was a big thing that we were going to start a new millennium.

I forgot that song, I forgot the name of it and I forgot the tune of it. I forgot it completely and I forgot that time.  I had written it to remember it and to solidify and to remember the beautiful moments. We need to remember the beautiful moments in our life, even the small beautiful moments. We remember the big ugly things, but we need to remember the beautiful moments in life and I completely forgot it.

I ran across an old pencil written (piece of) sheet music that was a pretty modestly written melody line for it. It wasn’t faded, but you could hardly read it. I sat down and I (she recalls the moment of being surprised and it is reflected in her voice) and I remember that song. I thought, I wonder if I wrote it down well enough that I can still play it. Some of my early tunes if they were not well written they are harder to play again. I went and sat down and sure enough it was really pretty. Then I thought I would like to make a little bit more of it and make it more than just a pretty tune. We need to really treasure those good moments in our life and I sat down and I wrote the introduction and the credenza or the climax around the pretty little melody. I was telling myself to really treasure these moments and never to forget them,” says Lisa Hilton.

With eighteen American albums to her credit is it time to put some favorite songs together on one album? 

“I thought of doing a compilation of greatest hits and when I was talking to engineers there was zero interest (she laughs). Finally, I thought you know what, it is a lot more work than I thought and it doesn’t sound like much fun.  I think though, it would be fun to do new recordings of some of my favorite things. It is like a family reunion,” she says.

You can visit Lisa Hilton on her website.                 Return to our Front Page

Top Photo by George Brooks, Second Photo by David Arsenault.

This interview  by Joe Montague  published April 2, 2016 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the property of Lisa Hilton and are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. Top Photo by George Brooks, Second Photo by David Arsenault. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved