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Tin Hat Trio's dazzling, improvisatory Americana

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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For a chamber group with instrumentation that leans to the quiet side -- acoustic guitar, dobro, banjo, accordion, piano, field organ, violin, viola -- Tin Hat Trio packs an inordinate amount of musical muscle. Mark Orton, Rob Burger, and Carla Kihlstedt have a fluency with a phenomenal number of genres and improv techniques, giving their compositions striking breadth and depth, as if all the world's music were at their fingertips.

On The Rodeo Eroded, the combo's third and most accomplished album since debuting in 1999, the tunes evoke familiar touchstones: swarthy Astor Piazzolla­style vamps, slick Euro-classical harmonies, bent avant-garde timbre, and down-home intimacy. But this effort stands out from previous recordings for the unusual way it binds its patchwork of sounds together, taking an improvisatory Americana approach often credited to veteran jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Tin Hat Trio's vision of the heartland is substantially richer -- more dynamic and piquant, kaleidoscopic even -- than Frisell's. Rooted in tradition, the threesome's music is also brazenly experimental, yet its execution is so smooth that listeners might not even notice where the wild things are. Which is why it's fitting that Tin Hat Trio headlines the "Leading Edge" concert at this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, the city's swankiest showcase for aural sophisticates. As the group expands its trio format into a world-class orchestra for this gig, expect to hear the full-blown range and vibrant color of its music (including all the twisted notes) with a dazzling boom like no other.

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Sam Prestianni

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