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Hat Trick

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

From the beginning, Mark Orton, Rob Burger and Carla Kihlstedt, the instrumentalists behind San Francisco's Tin Hat Trio, understood that some listeners and critics would have difficulty getting their arms around the combo's wonderfully diverse sound. To assist those struggling with the chore, the musicians came up with their own press-savvy definition: "Music for the shotgun wedding of Astor Piazzolla and Django Reinhardt, with Charles Ives as the flower girl."

An amusing line, and a memorable one, too -- but guitarist/banjoist/dobroist Orton has lived to regret it. "Believe me, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth," he concedes. "We were just being silly, but it set this kind of precedent where now people are coming up with stranger and stranger images -- like 'Robert Johnson's love child.'"

Moreover, the Trio's evolution over seven years and three albums has rendered the Piazzolla/Reinhardt/Ives tag all but meaningless. No wonder Orton would like this particular ménage to "just go away" -- and he'd prefer to forgo a replacement term as well: "One of my favorite reviews said something like, 'Forget the classification. This is just great music.' I wish it could be more about just that."

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.

It should be, as last year's charmingly eccentric The Rodeo Eroded demonstrates. A number of genres mosey by the disc and sit a spell. For instance, "Night of the Skeptic" offers a side trip to Argentina, while "Holiday Joel" sets classical elements against a tipsy jazz backdrop to which percussionist Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood contributes. Yet the majority of the offering comprises idiosyncratic takes on Western themes, with Orton, violinist/viola player Kihlstedt and Burger, who handles accordion, celeste and assorted keyboards, delivering atmospherics aplenty. "Bill," the opening track, swings like a saloon door in the prairie breeze, "The Last Cowboy" patiently evokes a lonely sunset ride, and a version of "Willow Weep for Me" rings with authenticity that's enhanced by the assistance of vocalist Willie Nelson. As for "Under the Gun," the cut is the sonic equivalent of a wacky bar brawl, displaying along the way a comic sensibility that's always had a place in the Trio's music but seldom receives attention.

"I can think of times when we've been on NPR and I've mentioned some little bit of humor in something and had the interviewer finally allow himself to laugh about it, because he was unsure before if it was supposed to be funny or not," Orton says. "Maybe we need to be a little more overt -- but it's hard to imagine being more overt than 'Under the Gun.' Jesus Christ, that's like slapstick."

Assisting the Trio on "Gun" is Jon Fishman of Phish fame, whom Orton met years ago through a mutual friend and calls "a great drummer -- he's like the new John Bonham." The association with Fishman and MMW's Martin brought the combo to the attention of jam-band aficionados, who now make up a sizable portion of its audience. That's fine by Orton, even though he's hardly a hardcore jammer.

"There are certain things about that scene we don't necessarily like all that much, but I don't want to dwell on them or else I'll have a lot of protests in Boulder," he says, then chuckles. "I like to think stuff about our music would appeal to people who are interested in that kind of thing, and the style can be great depending on who's doing it and how much drugs they're on, I suppose. I mean, I've seen a million Grateful Dead concerts." Over time, he's grown accustomed to outbreaks of noodle dancing at certain concerts, "and every once in a while, we'll have an old couple stand up and do a tango. I don't have any real problems with that, because I usually have my eyes closed when I'm playing."

In contrast, his ears have always been open; his father was a conductor, so a love of music was his birthright. He's been friends with Burger since their boyhood in Stonybrook, New York, and started playing guitar and piano as soon as he was able. After attending the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University and the Hartt School of Music, affiliated with the University of Hartford in Connecticut, he settled in New York City. There he worked as an engineer for the Knitting Factory, a renowned avant-garde performance space, and oversaw sound on the road for the Lounge Lizards, which once featured Martin and John Medeski.

Burger and Kihlstedt have academic credentials every bit as highfalutin as Orton's; he attended Juilliard and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, whereas she has degrees from Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory and the Peabody Conservatory. None of the three is a purist, however, as is clear from the ground rules they established for themselves when they relocated to the Bay Area and formally teamed up.

"The band doesn't really have a mission statement," Orton says, "but there were a couple of things we decided early on. One was to be an all-acoustic ensemble -- that rather than getting into electronics or effects or big studio production, we would use preparations on our instruments and extended techniques to fill out the sound. And the other thing we decided -- and it's especially sensitive for all of us -- is that we really don't want to be any kind of museum band, where our whole goal is to resuscitate some Balkan street rhythm from the 1930s or something. A lot of bands do that, and I like a lot of them, but it's not the thing for us."

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.

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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