With her 14th album as a leader, pianist and composer Lisa Hilton explores the “bridge” between improvised and composed music. American Impressions is designed from the top to bottom as an examination of American music, with influences from Gershwin to Green Day serving as the indelible foundation for Hilton’s work.
She is joined by J.D. Allen (tenor saxophone), Larry Grenadier (bass) and Nasheet Waits (drums). In working with the same group she worked with on Underground, Hilton set out immediately with that essential sense of familiarity.
The awareness of the players is apparent from the outset of album opener “Too Hot.” Hilton’s composition is slightly off-balance (in a good way) and haunting with odd notes and tempos springing around. The mood is somewhat foreboding, yet there’s an underpinning of expectation that is tapped into with Waits’ cymbal work and Allen’s rich tones. The piece has a faint noir edge, too.
In handling such an exercise in mood, a piece that doesn’t so much as move but remain, Hilton’s group sets up American Impressions as a record interested in going far beyond the normal borders of “Americana” and other associated forms. Where too many of today’s modern jazz musicians trudge the same ground, creating perfectly pleasant but perfectly undistinguished recordings, this album has a different path to walk.
Hilton’s sense of mood is furthered with “Anatomy of the Blues,” a piece that doesn’t so much ring out as traditional blues but one that sets the stage and lights the candles. It’s almost as though blues could be played atop this anatomy, as though Hilton and Co.’s interest is in the construction and not the follow-through. It is a gutsy approach and it works.
When the time does come to be traditional, like perhaps on Duke Ellington’s “Echoes of Harlem,” Hilton’s capacity to delving into the emotional core shines through. The arrangement has a funky slide, accented wondrously by beautiful work toward the lower end of the ivories. Waits hits hard, firmly punching the ticket.
As mentioned, this is an investigation of American music more than it is a replica of the form. Hilton’s mission appears to be to push past the norm, to engage in a conversation and to re-examine the boundaries. With a brilliant set of players in support, her American Impressions certainly stand out on jazz’s unfortunate parcel of uniformity.