Hat Trick

The Tin Hat Trio defies description -- even by its own members.

Nonetheless, Tin Hat was frequently lumped in with world-music collectives upon the release of its debut platter, 1999's Memory Is an Elephant, and Orton understands why. "Back then, I think we were referencing different kinds of world music a little more directly, simply because we were in this new instrumentation and we had to find our footing as players. Referencing a tango or something Cajun or South American made sense, because it was a little bit closer, instrumentation-wise, and helped us define our roles. But as time has passed, all that's gone out the window."

True enough. Helium, from 2000, is played on instruments associated with folk performers who have overseas addresses, but the Trio uses them to much different purposes. "Fountain of Youth" merges Kihlstedt's gypsy violin with arty rhythms; the wittily monikered "Anna Kournikova" serves up faux melancholy with a wink; and the sweeping, swoony "Helium Reprise" is so strong a collaboration between the Trio and professional growler Tom Waits that it practically demands a followup. Unfortunately, "Reprise" hasn't been reprised to date, although Kihlstedt did play violin on Alice, a 2002 Waits full-length.

Other Kihlstedt credits include sessions with artists ranging from John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne to Tracy Chapman and, believe it or don't, Third Eye Blind. Likewise, Burger has spread the musical wealth to the Oranj Symphonette, Mixmaster Mike, Colorado's own Tony Furtado and Norah Jones; his pump organ is on the Grammy-hauling disc Come Away With Me. Orton, for his part, has been branching out into movie soundtracks, moving from little-known indie films such as 2000's The Slow Business of Going to higher-profile gigs like 2002's The Good Girl, written by Mike White and starring an unexpectedly credible Jennifer Aniston.

Acting accordionly: Rob Burger, Carla Kihlstedt and 
Mark Orton of the Tin Hat Trio.
Acting accordionly: Rob Burger, Carla Kihlstedt and Mark Orton of the Tin Hat Trio.

The celluloid sensations Orton and the Trio will accompany at several California dates later this month aren't nearly as glamorous; they're insects that appear in silent stop-motion animation films made by Russian director Wladyslaw Starewicz circa the 1910s. "He was really nuts -- he even made little costumes for the bugs," Orton says. "We're doing a lot of quick changes and movements à la Carl Stalling [who wrote music for the Looney Tunes cartoons], and there are some fight scenes between different beetles where each of us pretends to be one of them and improvises."

Considering the twang built into Rodeo, it's no surprise that Orton is a booster of spaghetti-Western composer Ennio Morricone -- but he also has a soft spot for film scorers as disparate as Coen brothers associate Carter Burwell and Oscar favorite John Williams, whose work on last year's Catch Me If You Can earned his admiration. Likewise, Orton says, "there are so many influences on Tin Hat that never get mentioned, because people are focusing on the more exotic elements. We're the biggest fans of the Beatles you could possibly imagine, and we love Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys. There's so much more straight-up rock or pop stuff, plus free jazz and classical music that doesn't have anything to do with what we're doing, but people don't notice because all of it has been put through the colander of each of our creative pursuits."

This eclecticism has given the Trio the courage to perform for audiences with varied tastes -- jazz, classical, rock, whatever. Not that the Hats necessarily tailor their set to the audience. "Sometimes we'll be in front of a crowd that we know we could take a lot of chances with, and we'll end up playing something that's really pretty and melodic the whole night," Orton says. "Or we'll be at an outdoor Mozart festival with a lot of seventy-year-old folks, and we'll play the most dissonant thing we've ever come up with. We try to just let things happen naturally, and usually it works out. We like to think the group can cross over into any of these worlds and feel comfortable."

Pigeonholing the Trio will be even harder once its next several projects reach the public. After completing a live album, the three musicians are making a quintet record with Björk harpist Zeena Parkins and tuba player Bryan Smith, both of whom appear on Rodeo, followed by what Orton calls "a big arrangement record with orchestral tracks. It'll be a neo-1920s flapper kind of thing with a bunch of special guests I'm not going to mention."

Orton is confident the results will have little in common with Astor Piazzolla, Django Reinhardt or Charles Ives, but he's already anticipating that other equally inappropriate allusions will surface in their stead. "It's kind of a scary thought," he says. "I wish we could fast-forward into the future and figure out what the hell they're going to call this."

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