Tin Hat Trio's idiosyncratic chamber-folk

Rob Burger, Carla Kihlstedt and Mark Orton are Tin Hat Trio

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 20, 2003) – There’s no readily-available term to describe the music that Tin Hat Trio plays, although it’s not for lack of trying. It’s been called chamber-jazz and avant-folk, but neither really does justice to the breadth of influences nor the character of its sound.

Perhaps the difficulty in labeling the music played by Tin Hat Trio – which performs at Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 9 – is rooted in the origins of the group’s unique, idiosyncratic style, which is as much the accidental product of its instrumental lineup as the result of any concerted effort to mix the various Old World and New World influences listeners claim to hear in Tin Hat Trio’s sound.

“When we started as a group, we were strictly drawn to the idea of being an acoustic ensemble,” said Tin Hat accordionist Rob Burger in a recent phone interview from his apartment in Brooklyn. “The makeup of the instrumentation was strictly accordion, violin and guitar, so what we ended up doing was exploring a lot of music from Eastern Europe and South America, because a lot of these folk musics have that instrumentation, as does a lot of American music.”

Indeed, critics and listeners alike have noted Tin Hat’s affinity for tango rhythms, Viennese waltzes, Balkan and klezmer scales, along with American string-band and bluegrass sounds, rendered through a sensibility equally indebted to the classical string quartet and the experimental jazz combo.

It’s as much the product of the musicians’ wide experience and background as it is a conscious attempt to fuse these disparate influences. Guitarist Mark Orton, a childhood friend of Burger’s from Stonybrook, N.Y., is the son of a conductor who began playing guitar and piano at an early age. He studied composition at the Peabody Conservatory and the Hartt School of Music, and is a prolific composer for Tin Hat and for films. He also plays lap steel and electric guitar in the San Francisco Americana band, the Old Joe Clarks, along with Burger.

Violinist Carla Kihlstedt is also an alumnus of Peabody as well as the Oberlin Conservatory. A winner of the Menuhin International Violin Competition, Kihlstedt has worked widely in the contemporary classical field as well as in improvised music. She has played with John Zorn and members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and has contributed to recordings by Tom Waits, Ben Goldberg and Mr. Bungle. She is also a member of Oakland-based bands Charming Hostess and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.

Burger studied music at Juilliard and at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, before moving to the West Coast for 10 years, where Tin Hat Trio was formed in 1996. As an accordionist, he toured with guitarist Bill Frisell, with whom he also recorded the soundtrack for Gary Larson’s animated TV special, “Tales from the Far Side.” He has recorded with Peruvian singer Susana Baca and played on Norah Jones Grammy-nominated debut, “Come Away with Me.” His first solo album, “Lost Photograph,” was recently released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label as part of its Radical Jewish Culture series.

Burger explained how Tin Hat’s sound has evolved over the years and over the course of its three recordings, 1999’s Memory is an Elephant, 2000’s Helium, and last year’s The Rodeo Eroded.

“At first we were really finding our footing and we were using these folk forms as launch pads essentially to create our own music,” he said. “But as the band evolved and we improvised and played together as musicians, we brought more of our own voice and personalities into the music. Now we just write what we write and it flows more naturally, so you don’t hear as much recognizable folk as you used to.

“You hear some subtle references to folk musics, but it’s not necessarily a museum project. There are a lot of bands out there that are tango bands or klezmer bands or playing folk music in their most traditional forms, and I like a lot of that music, but that’s not for me, and that’s not for Tin Hat Trio. We’re basically trying to push ourselves to try to write as a composer’s collective.”

As heard on The Rodeo Eroded, the group’s latest album, Tin Hat’s music is a hypnotic, dreamy, almost noirish kind of folk-jazz, still with roots in the various folk genres but deconstructed and filtered through an original gauze. Sometimes the group plays gorgeously lyrical waltzes, other times the pieces sound like a dog got loose in the recording studio and tipped over a table full of percussion instruments.

The album includes guest appearances by drummers John Fishman of Phish and Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood –garnering this most unlikely group some credibility with the jam-band scene – as well as vocalist Willie Nelson, whose elastic vocals seem perfectly suited to Tin Hat Trio’s stuttering rhythms.

The music is always delicate and hypnotic, however. “We all are very inspired by film composers such as Nino Rota and Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone,” said Burger, accounting for Tin Hat’s dreamy, hazy quality. “And with no drums and bass in the music, there are more subtle, delicate nuances.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 22, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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