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Tin Hat Trio

Club Helsinki, Great Barrington, MA
March 3, 2006

by Jeff Waggoner

Go into a record store, and you are likely to find “Tin Hat Trio” CDs filed in the jazz section, but that’s a disservice to this eclectic and brilliant San Francisco-based ensemble – which is now, at least when it played March 3 at the Club Helsinki in Great Barrington --  a quartet.

The keystone of this group’s musical success is its devotion to melody and its unparalleled ability to sound fresh while making every note resonate. Any and all musical genres or styles are fair game to this group.

In one interview, violinist Carla Kihlstedt said that the group’s goal was to “bring an avant-garde sensibility into a context where it is not alienating.”  That they do.

Tin Hat hat doesn’t alienate because invariably finds a way to tell a meaningful story – refracted through the prisms of jazz, avant garde, classical, klezmer and other folk music from around the world.
Plus, unlike many avant-garde groups, Tin Hatters never allow their love of melody and musical storytelling to be consumed by too many notes. While within their reach, cacophony is definitely not a specialty.

Club Helsinki billed the Tin Hat as being “acoustic” musicians – a catch-all for the indescribable, but fair, in some measure, when used in context with the Tin Hat.  They definitely don't carry tall towers of Marshall amps with them. They play real wooden, instruments -- some of which might have been bought from the Robert Johnson or Bukka White estates.

At the club, two original Tin Hatters – guitarist Mark Orton and Kihlstedt – were joined by Ben Goldberg on clarinet and multi-instrumentalist Ara Anderson, who plays trumpet, pump organ and glockenspiel – and perhaps a half dozen other instruments.

Missing was the former trio’s co-founder, accordionist and pianist, Rob Burger, but the group, formed first in 1997,  still has its unmistakable sound – with an even greater arsenal of textures and colors. 

Kihlsted, Orton and Anderson are classically trained musicians.  Goldberg studied with Steve Lacy and Joe Lovano and was part of the ‘radical klezmer” movement. Goldberg’s latest CD “The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The Fact” (Cryptogramophone) was a tribute to Lacy.  For his part, Anderson brings his own wacky, post-modern style of music that fits in perfectly with the eccentric Tin Hat.

It’s perhaps this group’s own versatility, creativity and wide-ranging talent that’s been their heaviest anchor.  You can’t put Tin Hat in a tidy marketing package and sell them easily. They’ll just wiggle out of the wrapper.

Once they will sound avant-garde.  Another time they sound Eastern European with a smidgen of klezmer. Next, they are recording a yearning rendition of Willow Weep for Me, with Nashville stalwart Willie Nelson singing.

On Friday, March 3, the group played about a dozen songs – a mix of pieces written by all four.

The group played tightly – but with some room for improvisation. 
The only thing lacking, it seems, was Kihlstedt’s beautiful and ethereal voice. In addition to her superb violin chops, her singing – showcased on non-Tin Hat recordings – shines.

Tin Hat has played now in at least two venues within striking distance of Albany – the Rosendale Café and Club Helsinki.  Both are a hike from Albany, but well worth the trip to see one of the most creative groups on the music scene in the country.

We hope that soon, they will find a venue closer to the heart of the Capital District to showcase their talents.

Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Metroland, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times. He lives in Nassau, is a student of jazz saxophone and guitar and can be frequently found at jazz, blues and folk concerts.