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Trio wears many hats

Mark Orton leads cross-genre group

A music store clerk would be hard-pressed to figure out where to shelve a CD by the Tin Hat Trio.

In their catchy and atmospheric songs, guitarist Mark Orton, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and accordionist Rob Burger meld tango, classical, jazz and bluegrass music. This may sound like a recipe for dissonance, but the trio has the skill and moxie to blend the styles into a seductive sound.

The group's new CD, 'The Rodeo Eroded,' follows 1999's 'Memory Is an Elephant' and 2000's 'Helium.' As part of a five- city West Coast tour, the trio plays the Fez Ballroom this week.

Orton, who writes the bulk of the songs, lives in Southeast Portland. Apart from working with the trio, he has composed music for films such as the recent indie hit 'The Good Girl.'

He likens the trio's music to movie soundtracks, a comparison that's evident on several songs on 'The Rodeo Eroded.' The stirring 'O.N.E.O.' pays homage to the music of Ennio Morricone from his spaghetti western days working with director Sergio Leone. Other songs have the menacing air of an Alfred Hitchcock score.

Orton, a native of Long Island, N.Y., cut his teeth in high school rock bands before refining his music skills at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn.

In 1994, he and his friends Burger and Kihlstedt formed the Tin Hat Trio during a cross-country trip. After driving into a winter storm, Orton recalls, 'We holed up in a Motel 6 and played our acoustic instruments. That led to our core instrumentation of violin, guitar and accordion.'

Kihlstedt, a dictionary enthusiast, gets credit for naming the band. 'She pastes dictionary pages on her ceilings and floors,' Orton explains. 'One day she was rolling around the floor, and she came across a listing for 'tin hat,' a phrase for a miner's hat with a candle attached to it. We liked the antiquity of it.'

The trio's influences include American composers Aaron Copeland and Charles Ives, tango composer Astor Piazolla, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. 'We also like the dirtier side of jazz, like Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus,' Orton says.

The bulk of the trio's songs are instrumental, though each of the group's albums features a song with a guest vocalist. Tom Waits appeared on 'Helium,' and Willie Nelson lends his craggy voice to the wistful 'Willow Weep for Me' on the new CD.

'His phrasing on the song is so strange,' says Orton, who produced the track. 'At first I thought he was out of sync with the music. But you don't tell Willie what to do. It's just as well that I wasn't at the studio when he recorded it.'

In the studio and in concert, the trio's goal is to blur the line between improvisation and formal composition. Orton describes the results as 'melodic music with avant-garde elements.'

In the end, the Tin Hat Trio's music defies categorization. 'Record labels have said, 'Wow! But where are we going to put you?' ' he says. 'Audience members will come up to us and say, 'That's great music. What's it called?' '

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