Classically trained but ready for tangents from jazz to tango, Tin Hat Trio makes musical alchemy

The problem with creating music that's hard to put a finger on is getting it into people's hands.

'I wish there were a section of the record store that we fit into,' guitarist Mark Orton says of the innovative Tin Hat Trio, who appear Sunday at the Mt. Hood Jazz Festival. 'We play at classical festivals, and people come up and say, 'That was great. What do you call that music?' ' Orton says.

Words can describe the classically trained threesome and their bewildering range of musical influences, but it takes a lot of them.

'If I had to tell someone, I'd say it's a jazz-classical-tango-blues-chamber fusion,' says festival artistic director Bill Royston. 'The bottom line is, they play good music.'

Royston said some jazz traditionalists will struggle with the trio's challenging sound. But, he said, 'there are other people who come to jazz festivals to experience something new. Those people will stand up and applaud.'

'It's just a matter of finding that audience,' says Tin Hat Trio pianist Rob Burger.

'With this unnameable thing, there is no easy path,' says Orton, who lives in Southeast Portland. 'It's a struggle, especially since we're in the United States, where everything has to fit in that box. We have to rely on alternative radio and NPR.'

'I can tell you,' Royston says, 'it's the first time in years I've booked a jazz festival that had an accordion in it.'

Tin Hat Trio are Orton, 35, Burger, 32, and violinist Carla Kihlstedt, 32. Orton, the son of a composer, grew up with Burger in Long Island, N.Y. He met Kihlstedt at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

The three moved west in 1994, Orton and Burger spending time in Portland before reuniting with Kihlstedt in San Francisco. The group's first record, 'Memory Is an Elephant,' was released in 1999. A second album, 'Helium,' came out in 2000.

Influences run the gamut

'The trio itself had very little in the way of a mission statement when we started,' Orton says. 'We did not set out to be a museum band. That's not something we're interested in. We're trying to make original music.'

Burger said the players moved away from their classical training as time went on. 'We started to make music that came more naturally for us,' he said. 'We are American. You can't help but reference folk music when you're playing acoustic music.'

'We listen to the weirdest music in the world,' Orton says. 'We all listen to a lot of world folk music. It works its way onto your palette as a composer.'

The trio confine their improvisational approach within a stronger compositional structure, Orton says. 'We didn't want that feeling you get with free-form jazz where the solo could almost be inserted anywhere.'

On 'The Rodeo Eroded,' their third and most recent record, the trio's complex nature quickly becomes apparent. The album opens with Orton's spare dobro joined in succession by plaintive accordion and violin. All the ingredients for deep melancholy are present, but Orton's rubbery low notes give 'Bill,' a tribute to jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, an odd buoyancy.

The track leaves the listener with the strange sense of having attended an Eastern European wedding in a Parisian cafe while wearing a Civil War uniform.

Recognizable jazz forms emerge with help from members of Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood, but then the group plunges into a fully orchestrated rendition of 'Willow Weep for Me' with Willie Nelson on vocal. Unorthodox instrumentation and Nelson's singular reading of the song make it an indelible experience. 'We loved the idea of doing this singing-cowboy thing,' Orton says.

They're big in Europe

When Tin Hat Trio are not working on countless side projects that range from avant-garde rock to studio work for other artists to film scoring, they tour the United States and Europe extensively. 'We're more like a rock band in that sense,'


They recently returned from Germany, where they provided a live soundtrack, which Orton composed, to the silent films of early 20th century Russian director Wladyslaw Starewicz.

'There's a pretty wide audience over there for some of the projects that we do,' Burger says. 'Some parts of it have to do with the instrumentation. It's a little bit closer to home for them.'

Orton says one Tin Hat Trio goal is to resurrect the Tin Pan Alley sound of a singer in front of a full

orchestra, a form he says ran aground with the beginning of the rock era.

'Rock 'n' roll took it over before it reached its true apex,' Orton says. When it happens now, he says, 'they use it more as a vehicle of nostalgia. It doesn't feel to me like they're taking it to the next level.'

'There are

rewards in what we do,' Burger says. 'We have a lot of freedom in our lives, and we're playing music. We aren't making untold millions like my friend Norah Jones is making right now. Do we need to have a record go multiplatinum? No.'

'I don't own houses all over the world,' Orton says. But, he adds, 'we don't have day jobs.'

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