RR LogoLisa Hilton Interprets the Sky and the Ocean With Her Music

Lisa Hilton Photo One 2015

Malibu, California Jazz pianist and composer Lisa Hilton’s current album Horizons is another masterpice by an artist who continues to compose breathtakingly beautiful songs. The recording consists of nine Hilton original compositions, plus Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mockingbird,” the Black Keys’ “Gold On the Ceiling,” and Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini’s “Moon River.”

The album opens with the spritely “Vapors and Shadows,” showcasing Lisa Hilton’s exquisite playing with Rudy Royston backing her on drums, while he adds some percussion panache. The album then segues into the head nodding, toe tapping “Nocturnal,” and it’s time to showcase Sean Jones on trumpet and J.D. Allen on tenor saxophone, while Hilton sets a brisk tempo on the piano. Let’s not forget Gregg August laying down some smooth licks on bass.

While taking a sip of her ice water, Hilton says, “On the horns, I try and mix things up. New York Sessions (the album) had a horn and two saxophones and Twilight Blues (another one of her albums) had a horn and a saxophone.  I guess I just thought I would try it again. I had told myself at one time that I was never, ever going to do a quintet again, (she whispers as if she is confiding a secret), because it is a lot more work.  I wanted to mix it up and to do something different.  I know a lot of people prefer horns and you know you are always trying to find the magic secret to create the sound that everybody loves.

On a few pieces (on the album Horizons) I know that Sean used a flugel horn, instead of the trumpet and that is an even rounder and prettier sound, then of course the tenor sax is a deeper and mellower instrument, so I thought that worked well. The trumpet has more of that high register that stands out and I think it goes well against the texture of my piano. J.D. is the perfect foil for me. I tend to be a little pretty and he tends to be a little deep. I think it is a very nice balance there.”

Lisa Hilton takes time to talks about the song “Vapors and Shadows,” thematically, “We have all had loss in our lives and it is not just the loss of a pet or a person, but a lot of times we knew that something was coming.  We just knew we were going to get that or we were going to do that and then somehow it doesn’t happen.  It doesn’t come. It disappears and it passes. Then there is that sense of what happened?  If we look at that in nature we see that fog, clouds, shadows, they are always moving.  We don’t expect clouds to stay in the same place, so the idea of “Vapors and Shadows,” is this is normal. Things change, things move on. Things come and they go. It is only us as human beings that we expect things to remain static. The idea musically is can we create that sense of impermanence, but still when we lose something or just miss it there is that sense of hey what happened?  I don’t like that and then we realize it’s okay, it’s alright.  I wanted to see if I can convey that musically and if I can convey that sense of mystery. It’s not sad and it’s not tragic, but it has a little hint of that in there. What happened? Those are the kinds of things I am always trying to do. I operate on about three different levels.”

The fourth song on the album “The Sky and the Ocean,” is also an original composition by Lisa Hilton and it is an enchanting instrumental that carries you away to the west coast of California, as you take in the vast blue sky and the equally vast blue ocean, with gently rolling whitecaps. The mood is serene. Lisa Hilton Photo Two 2015

About “The Sky and the Ocean,” Lisa Hilton says, “Everyday you are picking up the newspaper and everyday you are going, another war? If you are an American you are going and how many wars are we in right now and we are sending more troops? You are like, another beheading? There are sometimes when every single day there is a new horror or a new tragedy that we are hearing about.  There was even a time when even the weather was hitting really hard too.  I think one of the roles of an artist is to try and extend the sense of hope in our lives and our futures in whatever way. Not every artist chooses to do that. Sometimes they show blatantly what is going on, our world is horrible, but I think generally as an artist, we try to create some sense of hope. 

Looking outside I thought, that sky has always been there and that ocean has always been there and I think there is a sense of soul in our world and the sky represents a sense of our future and a sense of our hope.  It is a sense of the blue sky kind of thing.  How do you convey that musically? That is kind of tricky.  I think about our lives and then I look outside and I try to see if I can create some sense of that musically.

The quintet serves up a beautiful interpretation of Mercer and Mancini’s “Moon River,” with Sean Jones’ flugelhorn creating a mellow ambience.

“I have been playing “Moon River,” since I was a little girl. It is a really simple song and I never felt like I could play it right. It took me until about ten years ago until I felt like I could play it. The reason why is, if it is a simple piece of music, you have to bring more to the table. You have to have a concept. When I play it the concept that I bring is, we don’t know what the lyrics mean, so my interpretation is they are young. (As a child) Johnny Mercer’s would go down to Florida to their summer place and he would hang outside all day long. Their place was next to a river and it wasn’t called Moon River, but like kids do, they would spend all day outoors and things like that. I interpreted it as though he was thinking one of these days he was going to have a boat that would take off. He was thinking about his future in a positive sense.  When you hear it the first time he is thinking of his future and he is going to be in style someday. Hey, it’s going to be good.  Then the second time you hear it, it is as a grown person looking back on life. Did he cross that river in style?  Looking back at my life in maturity, I didn’t do exactly what I thought I was going to do.  It is still a good life. I wanted to get that sense of beauty, peace and maturity and not this just I’m going to to do this, like when we are twenty or something (Her voice is deeper and edgier). Then I tried to end it with a strong sense of Americana. It has a strong American feel and it is almost his (Mercer’s) piece with a couple of tiny little changes. It is just a concept that you bring to it and not so much what the notes are. The simplest songs are the hardest. It is probably easier to play a lot of notes, because each note doesn’t have to mean a lot. What separates good from great if you ask me is the ability to make a single note shine. They used to say that Count Basie could make a single note sing. I love that concept and that is something I always try to do too, but you really have to play differently when there is so much space. When you listen to the second half of “Moon River,” you have to play those notes well if you want them to sound good. That is what separates the beginners from the masters I think. It is that ability to make a single note radiate and one of my favorite spots on the whole album is near the very end. Sean has this little trumpet riff that he puts in there and I just adore it. I think J.D. plays that tune really well and that is one reason I wanted to put that on.  I wanted to showcase the beauty of his instrument and Sean is such a lyrical player too,” says Hilton.

During several of our conversations over the years, Ms. Hilton has been sitting outside at her home watching the dolphins play and so we asked if that inspired song eleven “Dolphins,” on the album Horizons.

“Yes and no. I am always sitting or walking outside.  I think you know the story about “Waterfall,” (from her album American Impressions) when I was hiking in Colorado and I saw the ideas of streams or waterfalls and how the water moves at different speeds. It can rush and crash, but it also drips and dribbles over the rocks and it pools and puddles and all of that. I look in nature and I just observe that is what is going on in nature and then later on I see how it applies to my life.  Life is like water, it drips, it dribbles, it pools and it puddles and it rushes, it gushes, it crashes and we hope most of the time that it flows.  The album Horizons is about my observations in nature and how it connects with our lives.  When I look at dolphins I notice they have their own kind of water.  They have their own tempo, rhythm and speed, but they are different than any other thing in nature that I have seen, because often times I guess they are grazing, I don’t know that much about them, but they just kind of do a floating thing.  (Her voice gets airy) They are not moving a lot, but they are kind of graceful (Her voice now reverts back to a normal tone) I think that is when they are eating or digesting, I don’t know.  At other times they are quite playful as you know. Sometimes you will see them pop out of the water. I was wondering just like on “Waterfall,” can I create that musically and can I create that variety of rhythms and tempos.  Can I do it? Maybe I can. There is always this curiosity musically. It is always an observation that I see in nature and how I apply it to my life.  Then we kind of have that energy where we are wallowing around a little bit and then when we are playful too or something. There are always several different factors that I am working on in each piece.

I think that we are all the same and that we are all made in God’s image. If I am feeling something…I used that word lost, but I think our human language isn’t as specific as you can pinpoint in art and music. If I am feeling something, I bet you anything that you felt it and I bet that other person has felt it.  I am just trying to put it out there, our feelings that we share and I am trying to say, hey it is okay. I see that in nature. I see the dolphins doing it (she laughs lightly) and I am trying to relate it to this world that we have,” she explains.

Recently, after her fans requesting for many years that Lisa Hilton make sheet music available for some of her original compositions, she has done just that and they can be purchased through her website. The link to her website appears at the end of this interview.

When the question about the sheet music was raised, she playfully asked, “Do you play the piano and would you like some?” before continuing,”I had been asked for such a long time for piano sheet music, but the problem that I had was that the tunes were always developing and growing as I grew as a musician. They were never static.  That’s one of the things that we like about Jazz is that the music keeps changing, unlike Bach or Mozart when you have to play (a certain) way. With Jazz one of the things that we like is that it is more like people, because it changes and grows. It was on my wish list to do for probably ten years and now I offer ten pieces as sheet music. It was quite a big step for me and it was quite a big deal. I am proud of this (the smile is evident in her voice). I think what I will do is every year I will add a few things.  I try and choose very melodic pieces that are not too difficult to play and that will be able to translate pretty well. If there is a lot of improvisation then you probably are not going to be happy buying that sheet music, because you have to fill in a lot. The sheet music that is for sale are pieces that allow room for improvisation, but if you don’t improvise you are still going to be able to play the piece. Lisa Hilton Photo Three 2015

I think they are like $2.99 or something or $1.99. You pay through Paypal and then you download the PDF just like that. It is really easy. Isn’t that exciting?  Now I am like where are all these people who for ten years asked me if they could have sheet music? If you buy it, it is a digital download, you have it immediately.”  

Since it has been a popular topic of discussion among recording and performing artists during the past year we asked Lisa Hilton for her thoughts concerning the financial challenges facing artists today.

“I don’t think anyone can even comprehend, how small an amount that artists are paid and my very first job when I was fifteen and one-half was at McDonalds and I am pretty sure that I get paid less now and I don’t know how to right that. Every year I spend some of my time discussing it and making others aware and writing to BMI. The business model is not working right now. I saw many years ago the writing on the wall with the digital delivery of music, as in streaming. In the past the argument was it was a new industry and they couldn’t afford any other way, but we all knew in the future that it was probably going to be the only way that we would be getting music and sure enough there are now a zillion stations on the internet or you even go on Youtube and you can listen that way. Our terestrial stations are smaller and less play is going on. I have been an independent artist for seventeen years, so I do keep track of that stuff and I am interested in it. I have seen the decline. I don’t know what we can do moving forward, but the whole concept was the Block Buster economic theory and that is, you make a lot of money now and you don’t worry about the future or the artist. The (other) theory is you can make a little money for a long time. That little amount gets smaller and smaller and smaller. You have to have something else going on like teaching or something.  Per song being played and it has gone down since I have been keeping track, now most of the time I get .00005 cents (per play streaming) and I don’t even verbally know what that amount is. How do I say that? I don’t even know what amount of a penny it is. I don’t have verbage for that. Even the new idea that you can make money on Youtube, that money is just pennies. I have faith, I really do and I am telling you, I don’t know what is going to happen. Our costs are going up and they are not remaining static and the pay is getting smaller. I know more than most people do, because if you had a record label (meaning if you were signed to one), you would probably never see your royalty statements or if you did you wouldn’t have any say over them. The royalty statements in fact, might just go to the record label. You wouldn’t have control.”

Earlier this year Lisa Hilton worked once again with Junior Blind America, something that is very near and dear to her heart and that she first started to do fifteen years ago. We wanted to give her an opportunity to talk about that once again.

“I think that I started working with them about the time I started my music career. I didn’t know anybody who was blind. There was a camp for blind children near my home and I thought that sounds pretty easy, I will go and help out there. I bet they would like some music. It wasn’t a big thought, it was just oh I would like to work with children and they are nearby and it is a camp. It sounds like something that I would like to do. It was more touching and more difficult than I thought it would be, so I played at the camp, which was owned by Junior Blind of America for two years. When I met someone from the Perkins School For the Blind in Boston, I didn’t have a lot of background with people who are visually impaired, but I said I have played for blind children before. This was just mentioned in conversation and he said, well you need to come and play for Perkins! I was like, well you are in Boston. He asked so many times and he was very persistent, so I said okay. I said yes I will go. Again, it was more challenging than I thought it would be. I went and I played there, I think about two or three times. The last time that I played there I thought it was really successful. I felt really good about the situation. Right after I played in Boston, I thought to myself, I would like to do something more. I really enjoy being with students who are visually impaired. A group from Chicago called me and I was like Chicago even! Then someone else asked me if I could go to Chicago. I have worked with Chicago Lighthouse now for six years or something like that. Along the way, I said that I had worked with Junior Blind before and then Junior Blind said hey thank you for mentioning us, why don’t you come and play for us again. Now I have been going to the main camp for Junior Blind of America for six years. It really was a small idea, oh I think that would be fun and now it is something that really enriches my life. I would have hoped by now I could have done something bigger. I just really wish I could do more and I haven’t been able to figure that out other than to bring a nice afternoon to the students a couple of times a year. I helped to raise a little money along the way. It is a big issue. It is bigger than I had imagined when I first got involved. A lot of the kids are multi-handicapped and it is difficult. There are a lot of difficulties that we are working with. I feel good giving what I would like to receive.  I think music should be for everyone. I don’t think that it should just be for the best and the brightest. I would love to see the Grammies connected and send a Grammy band every year. It has been hard to get other people involved, but I am still plugging away and I still have a good time. I still have kids sneaking in hugs all of the time (you can hear the smile in her voice).

Where the school for Junior Blind of America is they have students who are visually impaired and students who are multi-handicapped. In addition, they take in after school kids who are not handicapped. They are kids where both of the parents work and they need some after school care. It is in the Martin Luther King area of Los Angeles. It was a really big group the other day, about 165. You know what, it was a wonderful audience. Everybody liked the music. There was one wiggly worm and everyone else was listening. It makes me think you hear all of this doom and gloom about Jazz and instrumental music and that is waning, but I see these kids who don’t listen to a lot of Jazz and they are all excited. There aren’t any lyrics and they are totally captured. Their attention is totally captured for forty-five minutes, not five minutes and not ten minutes, but the entire time. I think that sounds very hopeful. I am hoping that’s my future (she laughs). Maybe another fifteen years from now that is what everyone will be listening.

 Please visit the Lisa Hilton website.   Top two photos by David Gordon, protected by copyright ©, all rights reserved. Bottom Photo by George Brooks, protected by copyright ©, all rights reserved.  Return to our Front Page

This interview by Joe Montague  published June 14, 2015 is protected by copyright and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine © All Rights Reserved.  All Photos are  protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved, by David Gordon and George Brooks as indicated above. 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