Lisa Hilton: Horizons

Cynics can once again have a field day with Lisa Hilton, a composer-pianist who does not regard “easy listening” as dirty words. Hilton writes originals that unabashedly favor catchy melodic riffs and lyrical flow. This latest collection on her Ruby Slippers imprint is inspired by her love of the beauty in nature, whose bold expanse is reflected in the punctuation of her album title, Horizons. It includes her faithful embrace of the swooning chestnut from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “Moon River.”

But those cynics dismiss Hilton at their peril. For starters, she has impeccable taste in sidemen. Horizons/drummer Rudy Royston follows a distinguished line of timekeepers that includes Lewis Nash and Nasheet Waits. He generates a crucially kinetic frisson that nicely complements the large tones of bassist Gregg August and Hilton’s elegant phrasing. Then there is the stellar frontline of tenor saxophonist JD Allen and Sean Jones on trumpet and flugelhorn. Whether it is the snappy roundelay of “Nocturnal” or the heavy cream of “Moon River,” their timing, tone and sense of atmosphere elevate the material at hand.

Hilton also possesses a deft conceptual sense that is spiced with unpredictable choices. She eschews the horn charts from Duke Ellington’s “Sunset and the Mocking Bird” (the opening song from the Queen’s Suite) and turns it into a hushed, silken vehicle for piano trio. Two songs later, she and the rhythm section deliver toe-tapping funk via a cover of the Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling,” which, like the ensuing original, “Surfer Blues,” announces itself as good clean fun. “Perfect Day” is as frothy as its title infers (bolstered by Royston’s savvy propulsion), and Hilton’s solo piano turn, “When It Rains,” calms and charms despite its flirtation with cocktail jazz.

Hilton has now self-released many records with roughly the same template: top-shelf personnel, unpretentious originals, disparate covers and a popular sensibility that is a natural extension of poise and passion. And devoid of cynicism.