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Interview with Lisa Hilton, June 2010
Interview with Lisa Hilton, image 1
Lisa Hilton is one of a small number of female pianists in the jazz piano genre. Never one to let adversity get her down, Lisa has carved a very nice niche for herself, and has recorded several solo piano albums along with ensembles and combinations of the two. Her recordings are a mix of original music and covers that come from all over the place musically, creating a sound that is uniquely her own. Lisa and I did our first interview in 2006, so it was definitely time to catch up with her to see what she’s been up to!

KP: Hey, Lisa! How are things in Malibu?

LH: Hey Kathy! I am euphoric today after solo piano performances at Yoshi's in SF and two in West Los Angeles at a club called Vibrato. Today I took the day completely off, and took a long walk on the beach with my Italian greyhound Ricky. Then I helped my best friend with something, picked roses and made a nice dinner.

KP: How did the performances go?

LH: I have always believed in the beauty and soul that you hear in solo piano performances, but there is a part of me that worries that it isn't "enough" for others. I don't feel that any more. I feel really embraced by the audiences. I am floating with happiness. Sure I muffed an encore, and an occasional note, but I don't expect myself to be perfect anymore, and surprisingly, the audience really loved it when I blew it and admitted it!

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KP: It makes you seem more normal and “human.” I actually had some parents thank me for stumbling when I played for recitals - like I did it on purpose! Were the Yoshi’s concert and the two in LA the release parties for your new album, Nuance?

LH: Yes - Nuance is officially out as of June 1, so these were the very first times that I performed these particular songs or arrangements. It's been exciting. Even my "old" fans recognized the differences: the new “nuances” in the performance of these compositions and the new arrangements.

KP: It’s been four years since we did your last interview. What have you been up to?

LH: Hmm, well then it's been four CD's since that interview plus two CD's that my label in Asia put out of my back catalog.
KP: Your first couple of albums were solo piano, and then you did a combination of solo and ensemble pieces, and now you are back to solo piano. What inspired or influenced you to return to a solo recording?

LH: It's people like you, Kathy, and David Nevue and others that have been so supportive of my solo piano work. It urged me to do another solo CD despite the fact that I might possibly "lose" some fans who prefer the work I do with my band. Another reason was that often when my CD's were reviewed, the reviewer would make a really positive comment about the solo piano pieces that I included. I had been promising a return to my solo piano roots for some time, so I decided this was a good time. Now that I'm done, I am overjoyed to have spent so much time delving into my beloved instrument and working on all the details as well as the character and nuance of playing. Everyone has said it has made a great improvement on my playing, but it has really brought a lot of joy too. I feel like a kid who was told to go into a candy store and spend as much time as he can there!

KP: Nine of the twelve tracks on Nuance are original compositions. Are you composing more now or simply feeling more confident about your own compositions?

LH: Well, actually I have tried to hold off from composing very much for this last year. To me, composing is like dating a lot, and I thought I should really try to develop better "relationships" with some of my existing compositions - to thoroughly explore and develop the good songs that I already had. I opted for "improved" instead of always going for "new." In focusing on song development and arranging, it made me much more aware of what makes a good composition. Now that I'm done, I do feel more confident and am REALLY feeling like composing new music with this newfound knowledge.

KP: Quite a few of the tracks on Nuance are solo piano arrangements of pieces you have performed on other albums. How did you choose those pieces?

LH: I'm always thinking: "What makes a great performance?" "What makes a great song?" "What makes an audience want more?" I've noticed that a great song is greater than the composer and (normally) any artist who performs it. For example, Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique lives beyond him and whoever plays it - the piece is great. You can play it badly, and it’s still a great composition. The same is true for something like Jobim's "Girl From Ipanema." However it is performed, by whoever, it is (for most people) very enjoyable. So, on a very long flight to Australia, I listened to my tracks on my iPod, asking these questions of my compositions, and came up with what I felt were some of my strongest, most enjoyable, and most interesting compositions to work on. I enjoyed the process so much that I intend to continue doing this. When I first wrote some of my compositions, I felt that they were good, but that my playing wasn't so great, or the song didn't have the maturity or development that it could have. I’ve learned a lot and feel like I did something really good for myself in the process.

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KP: B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” has been one of my favorite songs since college. What made you decide to do a solo piano arrangement of it? Even though I know that song so intimately, I’m not sure I would have recognized it without seeing the title. Your arrangement is such a deep, dark blues arrangement. I love it!

LH: I feel that songs choose me, Kathy. I love that song, but really, B.B. King "owns" it, and Buddy Guy is right behind him on it! But - I love it too, and for a couple years now it's been patiently waiting for me to do something with it. Is it possible to take a track that is so linked to a certain performer and recreate it from your own point of view?

Is it smart? I don't know, but I'm glad you like it. People have been divided on that particular track. From my point of view, if I was telling someone that the thrill is gone, absolutely gone, I would say it very simply and in a subdued manner. I wouldn't be able to moan about it because at that point, the emotion would be gone. It would be very controlled, quiet, and with glimpses of relief, so that is how the song came out. "you'll be sorry.......some day......" It seems like there isn't much more to be said after a line like that. When I perform it I give it a wee bit of a Chopin ending that is very solemn.

KP: I’d like to hear that! I think Nuance is probably the most versatile of all of your albums. Some of the pieces are smooth and elegant, there is some blues, some really uptempo jazz, and even your arrangement of Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” Are you becoming more experimental with your music or just getting braver about choosing which songs to include on your albums?

LH: Interesting question, and thank you for the comments there. Well, we all desire to grow on our instrument and musically, so hopefully you'll hear some progress. Besides focusing on song development, I really focused on new ways to approach or play the piano. I feel I can get new sounds now and I find that exciting. It's opening up a new area for me, I think. I'm a purist in that I am not interested in prepared piano, (playing or tampering with objects inside the piano case), but I am interested in expanding the qualities of sound that can be created on the keys. Anyone can pluck inside of a piano and get a "novel" sound, but I'm think I can create new sounds by how I touch the keys, and it's very cool and expanding to do this.

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KP: What inspires you to compose these days?

LH: I think great music is inspiring me more these days than, say, outside events. I think in the beginning it was much more of an emotional outlet, but now there is a greater element of exploration or learning about music, composition and my instrument. I still desire every piece to be relatable on an emotional level, and not to be an exercise or assignment like “write a fugue in Bb.” For example, I've always admired Rachmaninoff's Prelude XII, Op. 32 No. 12 because it feels like shimmering water to me. "Blue Reflections" was taking that idea of shimmering or reflecting water and doing it with a blues scale. I'm not comparing my work in any way to his or copying it, but there is that inspiration to write something that might be as much fun to play as that piece and exude a similar feeling to me personally. The title is a play on the blues scale that I used as well as the blue of water reflecting the sun or moon, as well as reflecting or contemplating say, a "blue" mood.

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KP: Will you be touring to promote Nuance?

LH: Yes, and I'm excited Kathy! After being in SF and L.A., I will be in Rochester/ NY, Cedar Rapids/IA, Hollywood/CA, Chicago, Dover/Delaware and I think Port Clinton/Ohio so far. I have never toured to this extent, so I am looking forward to it, and being originally from a small town in California, I get to see more of the U.S. than I ever have. I think more dates will come, too. So far they are all solo piano, too, so please, if you like the piano, Come On Out!

KP: I understand you are also writing a book about musicianship. Tell us about it.

LH: I LOVE talking about music and the piano - can't you tell? As you know, I quit the piano for many years, and I've had to really teach myself to play again, and to do so in a way to make up for all that lost time. I think that the techniques I have used on myself have been astonishingly successful, and I really desire to help other musicians who struggle like I have. I have kept notes (written ones, not musical ones!) for years when I was in challenging situations so that I can write now from an authentic perspective. Please wish me luck on it!

KP: You got it! In our last interview, we talked at length about the lack of women in jazz unless they are vocalists. Are you starting to see any changes in that direction?

LH: Yes. I think it's a matter of time before we have a woman leading our country, and we see women in all areas breaking through and/or starting to emerge now, and jazz is the same. It does not make it easier right now, but you can see that the tipping point is right around the corner. With a few more years of experience, I believe now that each and every one of us has challenges to overcome based on factors that are beyond our control, whether it be age, race, physical - this could be your weight or coping with a disability - sexual preference, financial issues or gender. No one is singled out: we all need to work with what has been dealt to us, so I really just focus on what I can, which is to create the best music I am able to.

KP: Did you act as producer again on Nuance?

LH: I did. It was easier this time to just be concerned about the music, the sound and the piano. Working with my band, there's always a myriad of questions on a range of subjects: "Do they like the music?" "How can I communicate what I need here?" "Should we use a Harmon mute?" or "Can I get them to do another take???" Solo piano meant I could luxuriate in focusing on my favorite instrument.

KP: You were one of the early artists in the Whisperings Solo Piano Radio group. Have you done any performing with them?

LH: I think the concept of group piano concerts is really really interesting - like extra scoops of dessert. I just have never really gotten past the "It might be fun to do it" stage. There are so many things I am interested in trying/doing that are keeping me from doing a Whisperings Solo Piano Radio Group show for now. Like all of us, I can only focus on so much at one time.

Being one of the early Whisperings Artists has been inspiring just in and of itself. I was as dejected and rejected as a musician can be when David Nevue called me and told me about a Solo Piano Radio station. I could not believe my ears! What's next, Piano TV? Really! I was effusive in my support from the start, and have marveled at the success, speed of success, consistency of vision, quality of programing and spiritual practices that David Nevue has created, while continuing to compose and record like a fiend and still have a family. No doubt Whisperings Solo Piano Radio has helped to expose my music, but more importantly to me, it has exposed me to an inspiring person.

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KP: David Nevue truly is amazing. I’ve really enjoyed being part of the Whisperings process, too. Are you still doing a lot of work with blind kids and kids who are “challenged” in some way?

LH: On June 5, I am helping to bring the Junior Blind of America to the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A., which is a REALLY cool museum for pretty much anyone because it's FULL of music stuff! The visually impaired students and their aides - about 100 total, will tour and then afterwards I will give a short performance on the museum’s sound stage and talk about composing and being involved in music. On September 29, I will be at the new building dedication for The Chicago Lighthouse for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired and on September 30 I will perform a charity concert for them at Buddy Guy's new blues club there in Chicago. It is all going to be really fun I'm sure!

KP: That’s really a beautiful thing to do - it could absolutely change someone’s life!

LH: Music has changed my life for the better. If I had limited or no vision, I think it would mean even more to me. I love giving what I would like to receive, so it's really enjoyable to be generous musically to others. In addition, promoting a new album or any aspect of your music is a focus basically on yourself. It is a wonderful relief, and really the icing on my cake, to turn the tables and focus on others. I notice that as a society we tend to gravitate to giving extra attention to those music students that are the most gifted and the brightest, when in fact, music is for EVERYONE, not just for an elite segment. I like to shine a spotlight on these kids that deal with a disability in their lives, and often even more than one disability. They deserve it!

KP: Are there any other things you’d like to talk about?

LH: If you love music, if you love your instrument, then to spend time playing/practicing, listening to music, going to performances, reading or talking about music is really, at the heart, about loving yourself: you are giving yourself something that you love. By not doing those things that bring you enjoyment, by not practicing say, or not going out to concerts any more, you really are denying yourself what you love; what nourishes you. When you think of it that way, I think it makes you enjoy your practice time more - it becomes a treat rather than a chore, and that's what it should be!

Many thanks to Lisa Hilton for taking the time to chat! To learn more about her, visit her website or her Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com. Reviews for most of Lisa’s albums are linked on her Artist Page.
Kathy Parsons
June 2010