Her career propels warmth in style as well as performance. Although many times multi-directional, it’s that versatility that separates her music composition from the others. Her execution of standards takes on that Hilton-esque personality, which after numerous spins, draws the fandom in. After seven recordings Ms. Hilton has become an encouraging activist with her sound and arrangements as it relates to jazz pianists and students.
As we conferred, Ms. Hilton never skipped a beat--always the consummate professional adorning her signature compassion for her craft while embossed with precise technical respect when addressing the music itself. Ms. Hilton touches on many characteristics of her gift from the marketing to intimacy in music, various past influences to communicating, and of course the initial process to outcome of her compositions. All of Ms. Hilton will not be unleashed, however, the musician, writer and woman will be revealed enough to appreciate her gift and journey up to now.
Time to pull up a bench, light the stage, and embrace jazz pianist Ms. Lisa Hilton between sets:
The Inner Self
JazzReview: Many artists in music tend to focus in on the craft itself: in other words the performance and quality. However you multi-task as you compose, write, market, perform and so on. Where does this work ethic and goal originate?
Lisa Hilton: Artists DO have a lot of multi-tasking these days. Besides composing the music, creating arrangements and playing the piano, I produce, run my own label and market it too. The easiest way for me is to just have days where I wear different hats. Certain days I play the piano all day and other days are for business. That way I don't have to answer the phone from the piano. It doesn't matter how difficult things may seem though. I am doing what I passionately love, and I'm willing to do whatever needs to be done to continue to compose, play and share my music with others.
JazzReview: Does Lisa Hilton filter out in her style and performances or is there a separate Lisa that stays hidden away from the music sheets?
Lisa Hilton: When you hear my music, you really hear the real Lisa Hilton. I compose and play honestly and intimately about my life. I have written about love, anger, desire and impatience - even traffic! The piano is my voice and I assure you, I'm not an actress. I think that what I experience and feel is probably universal, and that others hopefully can relate to the same thing. There are no words in my music, but music has a way of touching people emotionally. I think the greatest gift you can receive or give is to be touched by others.
JazzReview: Many artists have favorite artists, but few talk about what they have taken from them. Is there one artist you enjoy?
Lisa Hilton: I love listening to almost all music, so in a way I am influenced by every great song I hear--from Green Day to Chopin, to Herbie Hancock. For most true artists, I think you can't really copy or be influenced much by others. It seems impossible. If I admire a song, chord, or a style of playing and sit down with the intention of doing something similar, it's like light in a prism--it changes directions, color, and intensity and comes out with no resemblance to the original. Jazz composers/pianists that I currently like are Dave Brubeck, Robert Glasper and Brad Mehldau. Pianists from the past that I admire: I like the lightness of Art Tatum's touch, the expressive quality of Bill Evans, and my composer heroes are Duke Ellington and Chopin.
JazzReview: Where does the ambiance and attitude of Ms. Hilton stem?
Lisa Hilton: When I create a song I hear it inside of me. There is an intense need to recreate that on the piano. It's not really about the notes at all. I am trying to recreate the experience or emotion with music, and when I feel that I've been able to do that, there is a sense of peace... ahhhh, I got it! So I suppose that creates the mood or ambiance of my music.
JazzReview: Whom would you call your driving force in music--in life?
Lisa Hilton: The driving force behind my music? I was in love, deeply in love with the piano at a very early age, teaching myself to play and composing little songs until I started classical piano lessons at the age of eight. For a long time I loved practicing, played for the school chorus, played for school theatrical programs, weddings you name it. But as a teenager, I became musically lost. I didn't feel like playing classical music anymore and I had a hard time finding any music I enjoyed. I came up with a few of my own jazz riffs at that time, but at nineteen I quit, never to play again.
About ten years ago I was at, (songwriter/producer) David Foster’s home in Malibu and he sat at the piano and played songs he had written and told the stories behind them. I had chills listening to him. This was it! I needed to play POP music! The next day I bought an armload of pop music books for the piano and raced through them. There was nothing in them that I wanted to play. In desperation, I started writing my own songs just so that I could play something on the piano again that I liked. And I've been playing and writing ever since.
Now seven CD’s and around seventy songs later, I realize that this is what I should have been doing all along. I still play a bit of classical and I do a few arrangements too, but composing and playing the piano now is like finding my true love once again. I hope to be doing this until I'm 100!
JazzReview: Your talent for music is very unique but you also show a strong gift for communicating. How has communicating the way you do helped and opened doors?
Lisa Hilton: It's nice that you say I have a talent for communicating. I think most musicians probably feel they're not so good at that and that they communicate through their music. To me, music has nothing to do with the notes. In fact, my theory is that it doesn't matter what you play, but how you play it. I really have no desire to impress people with skill, speed or dexterity. I want to express, not impress when I play. I want to share what I feel with others, to communicate musically.
Opinions an Octave Higher
JazzReview: How do you perceive the music industry today? Lets go deeper in that question and look at jazz alone.
Lisa Hilton: The music industry today, is very tough, as we have all heard. CD sales are down and the technology is morphing in new directions constantly, making it difficult to figure marketing strategies that will reach the audience that you need to. That said, whenever there is an upheaval in a business, it allows room for new ideas and directions to take hold - they slip through the cracks in the current structure. This is a good environment for inde artists, and musicians with a unique voice. Unfortunately the jazz genre is in dire need. I'm not quite sure how it happened, but even though everyone tells me that they "love jazz", they are unaware of most jazz artists or composers and they don't often buy jazz. If people don't buy product, then the label heads are fired, and the doors are closed on the jazz divisions. This creates a lot of fear and pressure on the jazz A&R people, and they are extremely hesitant to take any chances or new directions.
To play things even "safer," the labels now rely more heavily on standards, instead of encouraging new compositions as much. So things are remaining pretty static. I can only hope that artists like myself are able to break through with likable jazz that a broader audience can embrace, allowing jazz to reinvigorate itself. I believe this will happen. If it doesn't, I am afraid for the future of the genre.
JazzReview: If there is one issue in music you could fix and set straight what would that be and how?
Lisa Hilton: There is a myth that jazz doesn't appeal to a younger audience, which I find quite untrue since my fans are of all ages - I've even gotten fan mail in crayon! These days many kids study and are interested in jazz in high school or middle school even, and continue listening in college. I think it's a big disservice and dismissive to think that jazz doesn't have a younger audience. Everyone knows jazz is cool. I was recently at a huge jazz convention in Manhattan, and there were tons of twenty-something’s there - and they were really nice too. I went to a Brad Mehldau performance in Geneva, Switzerland, and the crowd was young there as well.
JazzReview: You have been called elegant numerous times. You portray yourself as such. Was this a planned move or did it just evolve over the years? How has this affected your music, life?
Lisa Hilton: My music has been called elegant quite a bit. My goal is not to shock. I like to create music that is appealing, satisfying, and beautiful even, but is still thoughtful, interesting and challenging. I always feel that simplicity can grab our attention more than anything, so I think I have evolved along these lines musically and in life.
The Ivory Craft
JazzReview: With numerous recordings behind you is there anything that stands out or impressed you?
Lisa Hilton: Every time I do a CD, I think, "That's it! I don't need to do any more!" and then of course I turn around and get started on the next one! With all this music, does anything really stand out for me? My songs are like my children, and it would be similar to Sophie's Choice to choose one over another. There are some songs that rise to the top though, and I think I have developed respect for great songs by creating arrangements of standards. It's as if a great song has a life of it's own: you can do anything to it, and it will still be greater than the person that plays it. Those songs last forever, and it is my ultimate goal to create music that is appreciated for decades. Songs like that are really gifts to a composer.
JazzReview: Anything that you have done to make you second-guess your move?
Lisa Hilton: The goal of an artist, any artist, is to interpret the world or our life and communicate it in a way that is accessible to others. Whether you are a painter, poet, or musician, you spend time being proficient at your tools of communication. But the act of creation is somewhat otherworldly: for me a song seems to extrude itself out of me if I allow it the time and space. I listen and think about the song a lot as it is developing, but I really try not to second-guess the process. It's more like I allow the song to be what it needs to be. If I don't like it, I quit working on it. Sometimes I can redirect a song though. Mostly, I like to just help the song to evolve to where it is satisfying to the listener.
JazzReview: If you could explain jazz piano to a student of the art how would you?
Lisa Hilton: What a difficult, but obvious question! I'm not sure if I can define or explain jazz. I CAN describe the elements of jazz: syncopated rhythms, interesting harmonies, improvisation, swing; but there are so many variations on these themes. Like hip-hop, it has a mixture of so many elements and it is not always linear either.
JazzReview: One compliment is that you have brought romance back to the ivories. Explain how you express that statement in your style. Flow of music.
Lisa Hilton: I'm not sure if I bring "romance" to the piano, but most jazz pianists are men: I have a page on my website, (www.lisahiltonmusic.com), that is titled "I Love Jazz Pianists" which has handy links to a lot of jazz pianists websites to check tour info, etc. There are only 4 women jazz pianists that I am aware of. I think that as a woman my musical goals will be slightly different than a man's. I'm primarily interested in seducing the listener, and sharing my life and emotions expressively. It's just a slightly different point of view. I don't think all jazz should sound the same though!
JazzReview: Talk to the philosophy behind "My Favorite Things".
Lisa Hilton: Everyone always tells me that they "love jazz", but they seem sometimes confused as to what jazz to buy, so for "My Favorite Things", my seventh recording, I really wanted to reach out to fans and give them their favorite jazz songs as well as new material I thought they would like too. I thought of it as a gift to my audience in a sense, and I hoped that by putting such popular songs on that it would help broaden interest in jazz.
I had fun deciding what I thought were everyone's favorites: classic jazz, it had to be "Take Five", for children's tune I chose "Alice In Wonderland", movie theme, "Alfie", and so forth. What is great is when people listen and say, "Oh I love this song!" and I just smile to myself; because that is the response I had hoped for. Favorite songs make people happy to hear them, and they are by some of the best composers too. Real jazz buffs will also recognize that the songs have often been chosen by jazz greats throughout the years to perform and interpret.
JazzReview: What was the toughest moment while recording it--the most pleasurable?
Lisa Hilton: "My Favorite Things" has actually been my favorite CD to record because I got to work with the legendary engineer/producer and seventeen-time Grammy winner, Al Schmitt. I've wanted to work with him for years, and was thrilled that he found time for my project in his very busy schedule. What intimidated me was knowing that he was recording Diana Krall just the day before! I felt like there were too many blonde pianists in his life! The projects were very different though, since hers was the Christmas CD with a large ensemble. The easiest song we recorded for "My Favorite Things" was "So This Is Love" - the first take was beautiful! We recorded, "They Can't Take That Away From Me" at the end of two long days in the studio, and I just "knew" it came out awful, and almost took it off the CD. Now I like it, so I'm glad I kept it.
JazzReview: Talk to us on the label Ruby Slippers Production? Why was it created?
Lisa Hilton: Unable to get signed by a major label, I created my own: Ruby Slippers Productions. I enjoy running it because it gives me a chance to meet a lot of nice people and learn about the music business. My goal is to have a successful career doing what I love: composing, playing the piano, performing and creating music. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz was able to reach her dream of getting back to Kansas with the help of her ruby slippers. I hope Ruby Slippers will get me to where I dream of going too!
JazzReview: As 2006 has arrived what are some of the goals you have set forth?
Lisa Hilton: I always tend to have too many plans every year, but I do plan to record another CD this year, I have promised my fans sheet music, and I think I will write a music related book. (I had a previous book published when I was just out of college).
JazzReview: "My Favorite Things" was a huge hit. However it was collection of standards known for years. Are we going to hear something in 2006 that is "Just Lisa"? Hey a great name for a CD
Lisa Hilton: With every CD it's always such a decision as to whether to record solo piano, the trio or with the full band. I recorded 4 CD's that were almost all solo piano of mostly my own music, and initially they didn't do well, so I decided to work with the band and add some standards. It's been a lot of fun, and our music has reached a much bigger audience. What's happened now though, is that, several of the earlier CD's have started to sell well!
I am asked quite a bit now to do more of my own music too. So there's a good feeling that things are paying off in the long run, and the earlier music is being enjoyed even more now. All the music is on iTunes, and for the first time on a CD, ("My Favorite Things"), the Lisa Hilton songs were the most popular tracks, and sold better than the more famous composers that I had recorded. I think that means it's time to put more of my own music on again! I will also try and highlight the piano more, because people have requested that too.
JazzReview: Talk to your performers who share the stage with you.
Lisa Hilton: Recording with my band is SO MUCH FUN! My drummer, Tal Bergman, has played with virtually everyone it seems in every genre, like Chris Botti and Joe Zawinul. He is so intuitive about what the music needs, I am able to rely on him and trust him so much. Reggie McBride on bass has also worked with everyone, like Al Jarreau, BB King, and Keb Mo. There's just something about Reggie that is cool, so he always adds that to what we play. Eric Marienthal on sax is just a star improviser. I enjoy just letting him rip things up. Everyone is very nice and very supportive. Hard working too.
JazzReview: Now for some kicks. When you're in a block and nothing seems to work to bring the creative juices back from the dead what five recordings would you choose to get those creative juices flowing again--any genre, any artist?
Lisa Hilton: I haven't had creative blocks, but sometimes I can get stale harmonies or rhythms. If I needed a little inspiration, I would turn to Duke Ellington, the Gershwin's and Burt Bacharach - all gifted composers. The artists I would never want to be without would be: Brad Mehldau, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Art Tatum, but if I could, I would also want to have GreenDay, The Killers, and Gwen Stefani around.
As you can guess Ms. Hilton has much to say and feels the need to do so. So how does she sum up her mindset when it comes to her quest in life? As Ms. Hilton states "I am passionate about music, and I love to share it with others, and to reach out to listeners. I am also committed to doing children's educational programs and introducing kids to jazz. I am especially dedicated to performing for blind or multi-handicapped children, because I think that music must have such a great impact on their lives. I recently performed and gave a master class at Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, (Helen Keller's alma mater)."
Commitment not only drives her but also embraces her existence and purpose. For her it’s the KEY of life itself!