Malibu’s Music Corner

Lisa Hilton's latest CD, "Sunny Day Theory," includes her own music and covers of Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger and Joe Zawinal. It is Hilton's 10th CD in 10 years.

Lisa Hilton-fluently musical

Pianist/composer Lisa Hilton has released 10 improvisational jazz CDs in the past 10 years. She began studying classical piano at age eight.

By Melonie Magruder / Assistant Editor

Lisa Hilton apologizes for not getting to the point immediately after riffing on a meandering explanatory response to a question about her music.

“I guess I just express myself better musically,” Hilton said. “I can write a song in 15 minutes, but it takes me awhile to put my thoughts into words.”

This might be one reason the Malibu resident and pianist/composer of improvisational jazz has been so prolific during the last decade. She has released 10 CDs in 10 years, including her latest, “Sunny Day Theory,” which features eight of her own compositions and covers of artists as diverse as Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger and the late granddaddy of jazz fusion, Weather Report co-founder, Joe Zawinal.

“This CD was a way to pour some difficult moments of the past year into a positive and spiritual place,” Hilton said. “I wrote ‘After the Fire’ about us here in Malibu. The fires of last year were so upsetting and, at one point, we just looked like a war zone. There’s a sense of sadness to this song, yes. But it’s about death and renewal.”

Hilton began expressing herself musically at a young age, studying classical piano at age eight. She began writing blues riffs as a teen, but tangling with an overly rigid piano teacher compelled her to quit playing for years until the late 1990s when she was inspired to hit the keyboard again.

“I do a lot of composing,” Hilton said. “But I’ve also played a lot of dead guys’ music. It’s hard for me to choose someone else’s song to cover. It’s like wearing someone else’s clothes. Their structures, their harmonies are their story. But it adds a new flavor to your own spirit, like adding a spice to your own cooking.”

Describing herself as “much more fluent in music,” Hilton said music always came easily to her. “I’ll experience something and then I want to recreate that moment musically,” she said. “It’s like someone capturing a moment in a photograph, but I do it on the piano.”

In “Sunny Day Theory,” she riffs on other musicians’ photographic moments. But, she said, “My band mates (Lewis Nash on drums, Larry Grenadier on bass and Brice Winston on tenor sax) were very respectful, very straightforward. It showed me that the songs are stronger than the composer.”

It would be difficult to find a stronger song in Joe Zawinal’s musical lexicon than “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which he originally recorded with Cannonball Adderley in the 1960s.

“I knew Joe here in Malibu,” Hilton said. “We were talking one day and I mentioned that I was thinking of recording a Miles Davis song. Well, maybe there was a little competition between them (Zawinal played with Davis on some of his most iconic albums, including “Bitches Brew,” although Davis was known more for his playing than composing), but Joe said to me, ‘Well, you should really play one of mine!’ So I chose ‘Mercy.'”

Hilton selected Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to cover as an honor to the anti-war sentiment it reflects. She is donating all proceeds derived from digital downloads of that song this year to The Carter Center, former president Jimmy Carter’s foundation that promotes world peace.

“It’s the first time I’ve done this,” Hilton said. “But it’s my quiet vote for world peace in these troubled times.”

Hilton-who is, yes, a member of that Hilton family-is passionately involved in philanthropic work linked to her music. She has performed and taught at Malibu’s Camp Bloomfield for The Junior Blind of America, which led to symposiums at The Perkins School for the Blind (alma mater of Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan) and The Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind.

“I do like to reach out to students and teens,” she said. “And the kids at Camp Bloomfield just have such disadvantages. Many of them deal with handicaps beyond blindness. They are such a challenged part of our population.”

In teaching at Camp Bloomfield, Hilton cites the challenge of learning music by Braille.

“But look at Johnny Mercer,” she said. “He couldn’t read music or play an instrument, but he wrote all these great lyrics.”

Hilton doesn’t work with lyricists, believing that instrumental music “connects” people.

“Instrumental music goes places where vocal music can’t,” she said. “It’s like contemporary art. You bring your own interpretation to it. And there’s no language barrier.”

Hilton is already thinking about her next CD, although she is now developing a solo show.

“Composing is more my thing than performing,” she said. “But it’s a way to get your music out there, which is not always easy as an instrumental performer. But like a friend said to me, ‚ÄĚNobody ever said being a jazz musician was going to be easy.'”

Lisa Hilton will be performing at Catalina’s in West Hollywood on Sept. 23. “Sunny Day Theory” is available at iTunes or Amazon. More information can be obtained by visiting her Web site at