Tin Hat Trio
Tin Hat Trio
Chamber jazz group
The avant-garde chamber group Tin Hat Trio formed in the mid-1990s and made its debut with the 1999 release Memory Is an Elephant. Defying easy categorization, the trio blends a range of styles, making waves in the music world with its eclecticism. Woven into the group’s compositions are strains of jazz, folk, tango, blues, bluegrass, chamber music, Americana, and Eastern European Gypsy sounds. Each of the group’s recordings feature the virtuoso performances of its broadly trained members: Mike Orton, Rob Burger, and Carla Kihlstedt.
At the root of Tin Hat Trio are longtime friendships between all three members. Burger and Orton grew up together in Stony Brook, Long Island, and started playing together in junior high school. Orton and Kihlstedt, who hails from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, met as teenagers when both were studying at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland. All three grew up immersed in music of all kinds. For Kihlstedt, that music was predominantly classical. Orton, the son of a conductor and music professor, started playing guitar as a child. Burger studied classical piano at an early age as well.
Each member of the threesome pursued a formal education in music, attending several conservatories and music schools. In addition to earning a degree from the Peabody Conservatory, Orton studied composition at the Hart School of Music. Burger studied jazz improvisation at the University of Massachusetts and classical piano at New York’s Juilliard School. Kihlstedt majored in classical violin performance at the Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, and also attended the Hart School of Music. After college all three musicians relocated to the West Coast, with Kihlstedt settling in San Francisco and Burger and Orton moving to Portland, where they played in rock bands.
In 1993 Burger, Orton, and Kihlstedt took a road trip together. A snowstorm kept the threesome indoors, in hotel rooms and at Orton’s grandmother’s ranch, where they spent most of their time jamming and improvising. Since they didn’t have their electric instruments with them, they played their acoustic instruments—Burger on accordion, Orton on guitar, and Kihlstedt on violin. By the end of their trip they had the makings of a new trio, although the group would not officially form until 1995.
The trio was encouraged by its first experiments in the recording studio. “We heard that sound and were like ‘Wow, this is a real sound,’” Orton told Sam Hurwitt of the San Francisco East Bay Express. “It was like ‘Amazing Grace’ and then a half-hour improv, if I remember right.” The experience was enough to inspire Burger and Orton to drop their rock ‘n’ roll pursuits in Portland and join Kihlstedt in San Francisco. Their first gig together was at the Hotel Utah, where they played sometimes as a trio and sometimes as a quintet with two additional musicians.
The name Tin Hat Trio “was actually plucked right out of the dictionary,” Orton told Natasha Nargis of the Albuquerque Journal. A lover of words who covered her floor with dictionary floorpaper, Kihlstedt literally stumbled across the phrase “tin hat” in her room. “It’s the original miner’s cap,” explained Orton. “[R]ather than a light it has a candle in front.”
The group released its debut album, Memory Is an Elephant, on Angel Records in early 1999. The album featured the group’s core instrumentation of guitar, accordion, and violin, and set the tone for the group’s signature eclecticism. Keen listeners could discern motifs from tango, samba, and Eastern European folk music, as well as a few Brazilian, Celtic, and Appalachian beats. Critics were quick to praise the debut. Said Time Out New York, as quoted on Tin Hat Trio’s official website, “The delicate simplicity of their music is as lovely to listen to as it is irrelevant to classify.”
The following year came Helium, also from Angel Records. Here the trio expanded their range of instruments, with Orton taking up the dobro (an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator), Burger on piano, and Kihlstedt on fiddle in some tracks. The title track featured vocals by rock icon Tom Waits.
All three musicians enjoy a range of interests and pursuits. In addition to playing music, Orton is a professional recording and sound engineer who worked for two years at the Manhattan club The Knitting Factory.
Members include Rob Burger , accordion, piano, pump organ, harmonica;Carla Kihlstedt , violin, viola;Mark Ort on , guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin.
Orton and Burger played together in junior high school, 1980s; Orton and Kihlstedt met at Peabody Conservatory, late 1980s-early 1990s; group officially formed in San Francisco, 1995; released debut album, Memory ls an Elephant, 1999; released Helium, 2000; released The Rodeo Eroded, 2002.
He has also composed original scores for independent films, and plays a range of instruments with the San Francisco group Old Joe Clarks, of which Burger is also a member. Burger, who fell in love with jazz in college, has added the Hammond organ and vintage keyboards to his repertoire, and is a member of the Bay Area’s Oranj Symphonette.
Kihlstedt is an established performer of both classical and improvised music, as well as an emerging composer. She has collaborated and played with a number of improvisers, composers, and groups, including the Bay Area rock bands Charming Hostess and Sleepy-time Gorilla Museum. Also a graphic designer and illustrator, Kihlstedt’s work adorns the Tin Hat Trio website.
In 2002 the group released its third album, The Rodeo Eroded, on Atlantic’s Ropeadope Records. Here they expanded on an Americana sound, incorporating more folk elements. Orion’s dobro carried this theme, interwoven with Kihlstedt’s violin and Burger’s piano.
“We’ve been turning a little bit away from some of the Eastern European and tango influences, and more towards the Americana-y stuff,” Orton told Hurwitt of the East Bay Express. “Partly because of instrumentation,” added Kihlstedt, “and partly because of different things we started to be interested in on our own.”
Tracks on Rodeo include collaborations with well-known musicians. “Holiday Joel” is an energetic piece featuring guest percussionist Billy Martin (of the modern jazz band Medeski, Martin, and Wood), while a cover of “Willow Weep for Me” includes vocals from famed country crooner Willie Nelson. “Under the Gun” and “Happy Hour” showcase the drumbeats of Jonathan Fishman, of the rock band Phish.
By 2002, Tin Hat Trio was no longer a Bay Area band. Orton had moved back to Portland, and Burger had relocated to Brooklyn. But the cross-country trio has not disbanded, continuing to tour, make records, and create special projects together. The latter includes music soundtracks; the trio can be heard in the Jennifer Aniston feature film The Good Girl, released in 2002.
Memory Is an Elephant, Angel, 1999.
Helium, Angel, 2000.
The Rodeo Eroded, Ropeadope, 2002.
Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico), October 12, 2001, p.1.
East Bay Express (San Francisco, CA), October 9, 2002.
“Tin Hat Trio,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 4, 2002).
Tin Hat Trio Official Website, http://www.tinhattrio.com (November 4, 2002).
"Tin Hat Trio." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/tin-hat-trio
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