Lisa Hilton’s ‘Beautiful’ Indie Life

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“I always let the music lead me, and it’s led me to a really rich life,” Hilton said.

(Photo: Aaron Regan)

Pianist and composer Lisa Hilton is living an indie life where life is beautiful. Since 2001, with her debut album Seduction, distributed on her own label (Ruby Slippers Productions), Hilton has been living as an artist who manages her own career — all of it.

Over the past two decades, the jazz pianist and composer has self-produced two dozen albums, most with her longstanding trio that includes drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Luques Curtis. Make that two dozen and one. Her latest release, life is beautiful, is her 25th, a recording milestone that took her by surprise.

“I never planned to make a 25th CD,” Hilton said, speaking from her Southern California home not far from the coast. “I never planned to be a music publisher, and I definitely never planned to be a producer.” Indeed, she never even planned to be a musician. Hilton studied art and design in college before rediscovering her dexterous fingers and childhood passion for the piano, which quickly became her lodestar.

“I always let the music lead me, and it’s led me to a really rich life,” Hilton noted. “The first time I went to New York, I played with Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Steve Wilson and Jeremy Pelt, That was a big deal.” So was playing at Carnegie Hall, where she performed six times in various configurations before the pandemic.

As a bandleader, Hilton has worked with an impressive roster of musicians, from McBride to drummer Antonio Sánchez, trumpeter Sean Jones and saxophonist JD Allen, among many others. She’s also written dozens of compositions influenced by ascended jazz masters (Monk, Ellington and Miles) early blues greats (Jelly Roll Morton, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters) and the tonal modalities of impressionists (Debussy and Seurat).

Like the natural world that inspires her, Hilton’s career follows its own seasons. While COVID-19 sabotaged her touring season, it didn’t stop her musical flow. She released three albums with what she jokingly called her “pandemic trio,” and was at the beginning of her composing season when DownBeat caught up with her.

Your composing season coincides with spring, which is a real time of renewal. How does that work for you?

It’s probably my favorite season because I have a passionate relationship with my piano. I don’t sit there and say, “OK, my record label needs 10 new songs.” I just start playing around on the piano. And before I know it, I have what I call embryos, little starts to new pieces of music. Right now I have a bunch of embryos, and I’m curious: What will the next album be?

Life is beautiful could almost have been titled “life is a beach,” because your piano takes flight like a gentle breeze over the rhythmic lapping waves of the bass and drums on tracks like “Stepping Into Paradise” and “Santa Monica Samba.” And “Unforgotten Moments: Half Forgotten Dreams” is very ephemeral, like the last couple years have been.

I like to swing all kinds of ways, and those simple Latin swings are like a good mood at sunset in a beautiful environment. “Unforgotten Moments” is absolutely about the time that we’re in. We will never, ever forget this moment, which has been quite fertile for me as a composer. There’s also a part of us that remembers who we were 2019, and that life is a half-forgotten dream. We need to look for, and curate, the beautiful moments, to help see us through the difficult times we’re seeing now.

Like the invasion of Ukraine. That’s been so horrific it’s almost impossible to turn away from what’s happening there. How do you feel about life is beautiful coming out during the biggest crisis we’ve had in many years?

There are a lot of amazing people in Ukraine right now. The Ukrainians themselves, and the people putting their lives at risk to help them.

And as musicians, I think the best thing we can do is to lift people’s spirits and help them find relief through nature, art and creativity. The music that is coming through me is intended to help others.

And life is beautiful is very healing. It’s also amazing what you’ve accomplished as an independent artist.

Once upon a time I was thought that the only way to have a music career was to be with a record label and an agent. But it’s not the only way, and it’s been really rich so far. And I’ve got, I don’t know, maybe 50 more albums to go, right? DB



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