Beyond and Back

The Tin Hat Trio's unclassifiable music spans the globe, which is just the way they like it

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, a popular chamber group combination was guitar, accordion, and violin. In contemporary Argentina and northeastern Brazil, the same group of instruments is the norm for tango and other intimate dance-music forms. In some Italian and Balkan folk traditions, it's also a fairly conventional lineup. But in the Bay Area, Tin Hat Trio's minimal acoustic instrumentation is often called exotic or strange. And its sound? Well, no one really knows what to make of that either -- not even the musicians themselves.

"I think we all have really different traditions that we've studied throughout our lives," explains violinist Carla Kihlstedt, "but right now, I don't think any of us could define exactly what kind of musician we are. We don't have any attachment to a label. We can go off on our own little island and say, 'OK, let's do this.' "

But classification is an inescapable downside of the music business. And given Tin Hat Trio's evocative sound, which does sometimes utilize tango forms, industry comparisons to Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla are prevalent. "I'm really into Piazzolla," explains Mark Orton (guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro), "but I'm a little wary to say that that's the primary influence [of the band] because it's not." Accordionist Rob Burger adds, "I think the harmony actually makes more references to the Duke Ellington tradition."

While all of the tunes on Tin Hat Trio's debut CD -- Memory Is an Elephant, just released on classical imprint Angel Records -- are improvised to some degree, they don't sound much like standard jazz (or classical) music. It transcends time, place, and genre affiliations, distilling myriad concepts from the bandmates' wide-ranging musical explorations, from the far-flung (South African, Bulgarian, Appalachian) to the more familiar (jazz, classical, rock). Yet it's no cut-and-paste National Geographic special.

In the group's press video, renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell offers some perspective: "I'm not a big fan of music where you can instantly identify ... these kind of blunt references to things. I like it when it's a little bit more oblique, kind of unclear. It sort of triggers some memory. And I think they've got that kinda thing goin' on."

Interweaving Old World Europe with postmodern America, south-of-the-border sensuality with concert-hall propriety, and odd-metered syncopation with deeply soulful grooves, Tin Hat Trio could potentially appeal to a vast listenership.

Upon first hearing the group's demo a couple of years back, German producer Hans Wendl, known for his distinguished body of work with ECM and Gramavision Records, says he was immediately "taken by the level of musicianship. They're a lot more adventurous and daring than what you'd get from similar ensembles, both compositionally and also the interplay, the way they listen to each other." Of course, all good improvisers train their ears and chops so they'll be able to react immediately and imaginatively to one another's moment-by-moment creative choices. But Burger, Orton, and Kihlstedt have a kind of synergetic advantage over most players: They've been friends since high school.

Orton and Burger grew up together in Long Island. Kihlstedt, a Lancaster native, met Orton through a mutual pal at a string quartet camp, where, she says, "He just came for a few days to wreak a little havoc, to contribute to my moral downfall ... my first cigarette, my first drunken experience." They soon found that they had more in common than mere teenage rebelliousness. Both had been primed for the classical mill from early childhood, as had Burger. And even though they both wound up studying at the same prestigious music school, Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, they also gravitated toward less genteel forms of musicmaking.

After attending separate universities, the threesome reunited in New York in 1993. They immersed themselves in downtown's radical music scene, which revolved around the infamous Knitting Factory nightclub. Orton worked for a couple of years as the venue's house soundman and also toured as sound engineer for downtown celebs John Zorn, Charles Gayle, John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, and Bill Frisell. Burger joined Frisell's acclaimed quintet with Don Byron and Joey Baron for a stint, which included a jaunt overseas. And self-professed "loiterer" Kihlstedt got a job as an intern at the Knitting Factory so she could check out the shows for free.

Despite the inspirational deluge, New York ultimately turned out to be a bit "too close to home" for the Eastern natives. So they packed up their gear and headed west, first jamming together with the Tin Hat orchestration after landing in California. While Kihlstedt settled in San Francisco, as she puts it, "to redefine myself," Orton and Burger soon took off for Portland to try to become rock gods of the great American Northwest -- they returned, undeified, a few years later.

As part of the violinist's personal growth plan, Kihlstedt auditioned for a vocal slot in Jewlia Eisenberg's fledgling world folk/altrock combo Charming Hostess. Even though she had never formally approached a mike before, Kihlstedt was determined to join the band. "I'm not going to be a classical violinist," she reasoned. "I'm going to sing, yeah." And she did.

As Charming Hostess built up a rabid following on the local club circuit, the restless Kihlstedt also began to infiltrate the Bay Area's burgeoning creative-music scene. The fire and freshness of her early performances at Beanbenders and Hotel Utah's "Dark Circle Lounge" quickly drew calls from the community's seasoned composer-improvisers, including John Schott, Dan Plonsey, and Graham Connah. She welcomed their broad-minded ideas, which, the whole band agrees, are conspicuously different from the more polarized attitudes in New York. "A lot of these people know a lot about jazz, classical, and different kinds of music," explains Kihlstedt, "but at the same time they totally disregard the boundaries between those." Orton concurs: "There are a lot more opportunities for crossover in the Bay Area."

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