Yes, it’s chamber music, but with slightly jarring harmonies and an incredibly odd aesthetic, a result rising out of mixing flavors of musical genres and ethnicities. The rudiments of Tin Hat are relatively unspectacular, with Carla Kihlstedt on violin and viola; Mark Orton on guitar, dobro and banjo; and Rob Burger on accordion, piano, harmonica and whatnot. It’s the compulsion behind the instruments that grips Tin Hat’s basic chamber-jazz structure as it winds, snaps and jerks in on itself while still holding in place somehow. These instrumentals course through a casual tango milieu from loneliness on the prairie to a banjo playing jester doing a staccato quick-step to Philip Glass stuck on a note at the piano after too much wine. Yet, all these musically manifested filmic scenes lead back to the familiar and comforting Astor Piazzolla influence, holding the mood swings together like the hands at the ends of a big, post-modern accordion. The trio possess an eerie knowledge, as if pulling from all of their musical tastes taken from past lives in Old World Europe, gypsy camps and jazz lounges. They take this knowledge and make it work and intermingle with today’s influences, enabling the listener to hear the impact Archie Shepp and Max Roach had on Burger when he studied improvisation with them, and how running sound boards for the Lounge Lizards effected Orton’s guitar sensibilities. The songs on Helium
take you on a wonderful ride, ending with "Helium Reprise," the grand finale with the help of a special seedy vocal appearance by Tom Waits and additional musicians and instruments, including a singing saw. Tin Hat Trio invoke a shadowy international mise-en-scène as if taking place in some lost-but-now-found James Bond film, and you know someone’s not getting out alive.
Anita Schmaltz writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].