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Musical Identity: Though their new label promotes Tin Hat Trio as a neo-tango band, the trio draws inspiration from far too many sources to be pigeonholed in any one style.

Tin Hat Trio's instrumental blend has taken on a visual trip of its own

By Andrew Gilbert

The musicians in tin hat trio don't tell stories about their instrumental compositions. They don't need to. Each tune creates a soundtrack for the imagination, with a narrative flow that evokes an entire visual world.

Combining tango with free jazz, bluegrass, klezmer and various far-flung influences, the postmodern band plays potent image-inducing music that unleashes listeners' inner cinematographer. Founded three years ago by three young conservatory-trained East Coast musicians--acoustic guitarist Mark Orton, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and accordionist Rob Burger--the group dissolves musical boundaries by melding the rhythmic agility and intuitive interplay of improvising ensembles with the finely wrought textures and melodic coherence of chamber music.

After a rehearsal in Kihlstedt's art-festooned Oakland loft apartment, the musicians described the trio's complex musical identity. Though their new label is promoting Tin Hat Trio as a neo-tango band (and Astor Piazzolla is a big influence on the group), it draws inspiration from far too many sources to be pigeonholed in any one style.

"The way our culture works and the way we live in the world is that I can open my CD collection and have a million different references to a million kinds of music," says Kihlstedt, who is also a member of the East Bay avant-garde Beanbender's scene and the Oakland rock band Charming Hostess. "There's a big difference between us and someone who spends their life learning how to play tango. We're referencing some things, but I don't want to be in a position where I feel like an impostor. I'm drawing on influences of things that have interested me and I hope we're integrating them in a way that's our own language."

Some confusion over the group's musical identity is understandable. Burger, for instance, is best known as a pianist and organist. Since he moved to the Bay Area in 1995, he's become a mainstay on the San Francisco jazz scene, working with everyone from vocalist Ann Dyer and clarinetist Ben Goldberg to guitarists Will Bernard and Jim Campilongo. More recently, he's been gigging with the brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell, another musician who knows a thing or two about bending genres. Despite the fact that it is a vital member of the Bay Area's performing community, Tin Hat Trio itself falls between the cracks.

"I don't think we fit into the scene here," Orton says. "Musically, we're doing something separate from the worlds we get associated with because of the other projects Rob and Carla do. We're not a free improv jazz group. We want to write melodic music, not for any type of commercial or marketing success, but because it interests us."

The band may not fit neatly into any scene, but the fact that it has found the space to flourish is a testament to the Bay Area's wide-open creative atmosphere. Though the group has only played a handful of gigs around the region, including last month's Embarcadero Jazz Festival, it has developed a devoted following among a diverse range of music fans.

"I think it's more open-minded out here," observes Orton, who used to work as sound engineer at the Knitting Factory, ground zero for New York's new improvised music scene. "In the Bay Area, we can play in a million different clubs, and it's forgiving. We can play in the Paradise Lounge, and we may only alienate a few people. There's a feeling in New York that to play avant-garde music is to play dissonantly all the time."

Part of what makes Tin Hat Trio's music so powerful is the attention to melodic development coupled with the sense of freedom and play. By balancing composition with improvisation, each set takes on its own character and seems to develop its own emotional logic. "A good percentage of our tunes have sections where there are improvised passages," Kihlstedt explains. "But we spend a lot of time on the arrangements. In the sections that are really free, we usually know where we're going to end up and how we're going to get out of it but not much about the trip between A and B."

For Tin Hat Trio, the trip from unsigned prospect to strongly courted project has also taken unexpected twists and turns. After a brief flirtation with Gramavision and a more serious fling with the Knitting Factory label, the group signed with Capitol/EMI's classical label, Angel.

Tin Hat's first CD, a gorgeous, aural film festival called Memory Is an Elephant, is slated for release in January. Produced by Hans Wendl, a veteran manager who has worked with such jazz luminaries as Frisell and the Clusone Trio, the album ended up on a classical label because no one else seemed to know what to do with it.

"Hans shopped it to Blue Note, and [Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall said this is great and gave it to Angel," Orton says. "And that's the reaction we've gotten from a number of different labels. Atlantic Jazz gave it to their classical division, and the guys at Sony Jazz gave it to their classical label. They said, 'It's not jazz; there's no drums or acoustic bass.' "

With the release of its CD, the group is hoping to break into the art center and university performance-hall circuit. But when the situation calls for it, the trio can handle the rough and tumble bar and nightclub scene. "At the Knitting Factory, we played a series of Friday nights in the bar, and it's totally loud, and everyone's drinking and smoking and yucking it up," Kihlstedt recalls. "The people in the front half of the room were there to listen, the people in the back half didn't care at all, and you had to project in a certain way to cut through."

The band might be able to handle the bar scene, but a lot of the music is probably lost in the translation. It's the pulse of Orton's guitar and the shifting lines and textures of Burger's accordion and Kihlstedt's violin that infuse the music with such visual resonance. Orton's "UC-Irvine/UC-Davis," for instance, conjures up an anxious journey through the countryside and a search for a familiar face in a crowded, sun-drenched street scene.

Perhaps it's not surprising that so much of their music calls to mind vistas and landscapes viewed from a moving vehicle. The three musicians moved out to the West Coast together in the mid-'90s on a cross-country road trip. Burger had just taken up the accordion, and Orton had recently dedicated himself to the acoustic guitar after years of playing electric. All three had their instruments with them in the car when they stopped at the Santa Barbara ranch of Orton's grandmother and decided to play her some music.

"We were playing more country, campfire stuff," Burger remembers.

"Just entertaining grandma," Orton adds.

"But it was really inspiring," Burger says. "The blend of the instruments really worked well."

And in the ensuing years, Tin Hat Trio's instrumental blend has taken on a visual life of its own.

Tin Hat Trio performs at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on Nov. 3 at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave.

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From the October 5-18, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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