Life Is Beautiful
Ruby Slippers Productions
Life Is Beautiful marks the 25th album for pianist, composer and producer Lisa Hilton, and the third recorded during the pandemic years with her trio of bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Rudy Royston. Here we have ten originals and one cover, the classic, bluesy “Ernie’s Blues,” composed by Ernie Wilkins and as the opener it sets the tone for her oft blues-inflected style. As stated in our 2021 review of Transparent Sky, Hilton also admits to echoes of classical traditions, and twentieth-century modernists as well as classic American jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Horace Silver as well as Brad Mehldau and Yuja Wang. The trio never rehearses; she introduces the composition and then they play, so like the best jazz, it all unfolds in the moment. To that point, “Retro Road Trip” and the titular “More Than Another Day” appeared on her 2020 album. “Santa Monica Samba” and “Nightingales and Fairy Tales” appeared in 2021’s Transparent Sky
By now readers should know these two players, Luques Curtis and Rudy Royston. Aside from Hilton, Curtis is a mainstay accompanist for Orrin Evans, plays with his brother, pianist Zaccai, and has appeared on several recordings from Eddie Palmieri, Sean Jones and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Royston may well be the most in-demand drummer in jazz. He is essentially the “house” drummer for almost all the Posi-Tone releases, for example and plays with countless artists from Bill Frisell, the late Ron Miles, and even the avant-garde leader Dave Douglas, to mention just a handful.
Hilton’s piano sound is lush, delicate, and highly melodic. Her compositions traverse several moods, tempos, and harmonic depth and touch tradition, Latin, and, as mentioned, invariably blues. Hilton‘s music is entirely acoustic and recorded live without any noticeable overdubs. It’s a sophisticated yet engagingly accessible sound that sets her apart from many piano trios. Just about anyone, jazz lover or not, will find her music uplifting and relaxing. (Note: there is more biographical information on Hilton in the 2021 review of Transparent Sky).
Curtis takes the intro for the opening “Ernie’s Blues” as Hilton hits several complex chords before loosening into a graceful bluesy swing. “Retro Road Trip” embodies the title in a kinetic mix of classical music (Prokofiev) and soul-jazz, pushed by Royston’s stirring kit work. Hilton echoes American Songbook standards in her own “Nightingales & Fairy Tales” and “So This is Love,” great examples of how her rhythmic mates play with delicate restraint. Among his many talents, Royston is often singled out for his deft brushwork. She nods to Bill Evans, modulating in different keys to set the mood for “Too Hot,” inspired by, as she says in her liners, the exotic rain forests of the Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand. “Unforgotten Moments, Half Forgotten Dreams” is an aptly pensive tune to capture the introspective mood of the pandemic, stay-at-home years.
“Stepping Into Paradise” is a bright, shimmering piece that’s indicative of her effortless way that she bridges drifting, meandering passages with swinging ones. The reprise of “Santa Monica Samba” from her previous album, inspired by a classic Pacific sunset, again includes Latin strains without being a samba, per se, although it has a very danceable rhythm. This time she adds a little phrase from Horace Silver, who lived in the area for many years. “Seduction” is a composition that she penned as a teenager and continues to play. Even here her use of chords and phrases is very bluesy. The tender, glistening “Temporary Lullaby” was written for her daughter while “More Than Another Day” has influences from Miles Davis, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Cole Porter held together by some noticeable blues progressions.
You just can’t go wrong with Hilton’s gorgeous piano sound. She consistently delivers and brings a few new things each time out. It may be time though for a quartet or quintet recording. In the liners she cites piano virtuoso Clara Schumann, early twenties legend Lil Hardin, and Joni Mitchell. An album featuring any of their tunes sounds intriguing. Hilton is a crusader for women composer, musicians, and bandleaders. Maybe she will champion some of them her next time out.
- Jim Hynes