Beyond and Back

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

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg, on whose album 12 Minor the violinist performs an outstanding duet with kotoist Miya Masaoka, has been particularly encouraging. "Ben has been a real inspiration," says Kihlstedt. "He once told me, 'You can't try to change yourself for different situations. You can try to apply your voice to different situations, but you can't change your phrasing just because someone wants you to. You know, you need to be stubbornly who you are.' "

It's precisely this ethos that powers the collective voice of Tin Hat Trio, who, under their original moniker, Masopust, also played their first, largely improvised concert with Goldberg. And while Kihlstedt, Orton, and Burger have each developed their own improvisational styles over the years, it's the group sound that distinguishes their music from any other.

On "Waltz of the Skyscraper" and "Big Top," the intermeshing timbre of accordion and violin gives the uncanny impression of a single, deeply melodic instrument. On "Foreign Legion" and "The Quick Marble Tremble," Orton's custom detuned six-string simultaneously takes on the role of bass, guitar, and percussion. But unlike stiffer, more isolated displays of fretboard facility by lauded jazz virtuosos like Charlie Hunter or Stanley Jordan, all of Orton's notes, whether improvised or pre-composed, come across with a profound feeling of freedom, which clearly drives Kihlstedt's and Burger's performances as well. There's a graceful ease in the group dynamic on every tune, an organic strength that seems to shimmer as if in dreamy meditation. It's spirited and electric, an aurora borealis that draws its energy from all the world's music.

No wonder there was an industry buzz before they'd even established themselves locally. Of course, given their unclassifiable sound, none of the major record companies presented an actual contract. But Michael Dorf, impassioned entrepreneur behind the Knitting Factory and its in-house label, wanted to sign the band. Unfortunately, his reputation for barely coughing up enough cash to cover production costs, and wanting major-label rights for indie-label service, was validated in the final terms of the deal. When the Tin Hats bowed out, "Michael freaked out," recalls Orton.

Due to a communication breakdown -- Dorf thought they had a firm agreement, even though no contracts had been signed, and had already included the group on the label's release schedule -- the trio's decision to pass on the deal enraged Dorf. "He left messages on my machine saying, 'You won't even be able to fly a plane over New York,' " remembers Orton. "I think he was posturing because he thought that we were signing with some big jazz label right away and he wanted money, but in reality, we had no firm offers from anyone."

Dorf recalls the situation a bit differently: "I made an offer, they agreed to do the record, but they essentially weren't that menschlike when it came to delivering. I'm not going to hold it against them forever. I wish them luck. I really like the music, and I hope over time that I will like the music more than I will my bruised ego." Will Tin Hat Trio ever play the Knitting Factory again? "Let me see them build their audience," suggests Dorf. "We'll work something out. Nothing is forever."

So for now, Tin Hat Trio may have to to see what kind of crossover appeal it can establish elsewhere. Various programs on NPR have already expressed interest, and Angel Records plans to cross-market them as much as possible. In the music shops you'll find their album alongside jazz giants Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, and Ralph Towner. Which is fair company, to say the least.

Tin Hat Trio celebrates the CD release of Memory Is an Elephant on Friday, March 12, at 8 p.m. at Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison, Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-14.50; call (510) 548-1761.

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