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."

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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