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Lisa Hilton: Kaleidoscope

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There’s nothing flashy or fancy about Lisa Hilton’s piano playing. Even on “Midnight Mania,” whose very title hints at something shambolic looming, Hilton resists the temptation to show off. Instead she teeters precariously on the edge, aggressive but keeping a measured distance from chaos, blocking out a repetitive left-hand pattern while JD Allen’s tenor alludes to something explosive. When that moment arrives midway, it doesn’t last long and doesn’t stray far from the root melody; Hilton never loses her cool center even as all hell seems on the verge of breaking loose. Soon enough, they’re back into the tune, bassist Larry Grenadier, drummer Marcus Gilmore and Hilton settling in with a robust springiness behind Allen.

That’s not atypical of Kaleidoscope‘s nine originals and two covers. Hilton prefers subtle expositions of melody and harmony to velocity and bombast. And it works to her favor. Her chord choices are unpredictable and satisfying, her runs often more suggestive than obvious and her grace pronounced. On “Bach/Basie/Bird Boogie Blues Bop,” what you get is pretty much what’s promised; “Labyrinth” implies exotic mystery; “Sunny Side Up” broaches some bygone era.

The two covers put a ribbon on it: “When I Fall in Love,” the oft-remade standard, is stately, Hilton teasing at waltz and bolero, falling into flourishes with Gilmore’s cymbals, then relieving the band for a brief spell to put her solo voice to the tune. And Adele’s “One and Only” is plied with dignity and opulence. Kaleidoscope isn’t the place to go for exhibitions of bravado, just for exceptional artistry.

Originally Published