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California pianist Lisa Hilton has admirable goals for her latest album, Oasis, stating in a press release that she intends it as a “refuge” in response to the turmoil of our times. Working with excellent trio mates in bassist Luques Curtis and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr., she approaches this goal with a throwback aesthetic, laying single-note melody lines on top of spare chords, simplifying the blues-funk of Horace Silver and the folk-jazz of Vince Guaraldi, whose influence peeks through on her tune “Watercolor World.” Hilton composes pleasant tunes from a variety of perspectives — she wrote all but one of the album’s 11 songs — and her arrangement of the Gershwins’ “Fascinating Rhythm” takes an unexpectedly dreamy turn.
Unfortunately, Hilton’s piano work creates some its own turmoil, and not in a good way. Her phrasing runs a little ahead of the beat (in contrast to the prevailing jazz winds of the past 60 years), and it impedes the trio’s swing, imparting a herky-jerky sense of cognitive dissonance, as if the music is slightly out of phase. On previous albums, she’s been joined by one or two horn players, but here she has the whole stage, and most of her solos don’t plumb beyond the surface — rather than pushing into substantive development, they tend toward pastiches that pile up diatonic riffs, scalar runs and/or coloristic details. (Ahmad Jamal has made this a centerpiece of his own style, but that’s not a fair comparison; most pianists don’t have the wealth of technique or the genius for juggling motifs that allow him to pull this off.) Hilton is especially comfortable with the bluesy filigrees that mark the loping opener, “Twists of Fate,” which works fine as long as she steers clear of cocktail-piano riffing.
Nonetheless, several of the songs — the Asian-flavored “Sunday Morning,” the darkly cinematic “Vapors and Shadows,” the prairie-simple “Warm Summer Night” — could easily attract other improvisers. Even if her own solos don’t add to these tunes, her compositions remain the album’s primary strength.— Neil Tesser