Review: Lisa Hilton - Underground

A fan of traditional jazz shirks traditionalism, thank God.
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Lisa Hilton - UndergroundLisa Hilton’s thirteenth release stateside, Underground, has her playing piano with a tight ensemble and riding on waves of elegant but challenging melodies that will please fans of jazz and blues everywhere. Along with Larry Grenadier (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums) and J. D. Allen (tenor sax), Hilton takes to the keys with a style and panache seldom seen.

The pianist grew up in a small Southern California town and was passionate about the ivories from an early age. Her great uncle, Willem Bloemendaall, fuelled her imagination and a coloured keyboard guide helped Hilton become self-taught in piano by around six years of age. After intensive formal study of classical and 20th century piano literature, Hilton was placing standards and blues as a teenager. Jump ahead through years of varying enthusiasm and you’ve got Underground, another recording in a long line of inspirational playing from this gifted musician.

When you’ve got a story like Lisa Hilton, it can take a very special setting to draw out the nuances. Underground offers that setting and the players meld together perfectly to generate a scenario in which Hilton glides in and out with impeccable phrasing, dancing with Allen’s saxophone beautifully.

“I’m a fan of traditional jazz, but I’m not a traditionalist,” says Hilton. “I’ve taken a new approach that has allowed me to broaden my palette as a composer. I don’t aspire to sound like Miles, Muddy or Monk, but I do reference these beloved composers. Jazz and blues are the music of our country – these (and other) great musicians are our wealth and legacy in America.”

Hilton’s angle toward jazz is a heartening one in an era of affectation and monotonous homages. What she does with Underground is refresh the genre aptly, paying attention to the history without abandoning herself entirely to it. Her methods of creation and renewal are present in the strokes of “Blue Truth,” where the changes and shifts in tone drift over a puff of cymbals and light sax.

“Boston + Blues” is another example of Hilton’s creative spirit at work. A sweaty, slinky blues number sprinkled with dialogue from Allen and spunky drums, this is a composition infused with swagger. Hilton climbs walls with her playing, challenging the upper scales to chime in. A delicate solo from Grenadier fills in the spaces and alters the piece’s sense of tempo as Hilton teases classically.

Other compositions, like “Someday, Somehow, Soon” and “B Minor Waltz,” grant insight into just how creative and open-minded Hilton is with respect to her compositions. Underground is an expressive, educational piece of work delivered by a musician with an interesting in the unceasing, unstoppable languages of jazz and the blues.