“Stripped down and exposed.” That’s how violinist Carla Kihlstedt describes Tin Hat, her intimate chamber-music project with co-leader and guitarist Mark Orton. “It’s based on an older-world model of music-making,” she says, which favors acoustic instruments and the “formal craft” of songwriting over the amped-up antics and spontaneous composition she explores in some of her louder, messier groups: “Tin Hat enjoys a certain amount of polish and detail.”
For nearly a decade, Kihlstedt and Orton created the band’s signature sound with fellow founder and accordionist Rob Burger. Mixing and matching stylistic elements from at least the 19th through the 21st centuries, the trio’s music was a rare breed. Picture Old World Europe through the lens of postmodern America, south-of-the-border sensuality cleaned up for the poshest of concert halls, and jazz-bent syncopation channeled into soulful grooves. Audiences and critics alike hailed the group’s singular imagination.
Then shortly after the 2004 release of the band’s spellbinding fourth album Book of Silk, Burger left to pursue other opportunities. Rather than attempt to fill their longtime partner’s “huge shoes,” as Orton puts it, or abandon the project entirely, the remaining bandmates opted to expand the lineup to a quartet-plus-one. This was not unprecedented. Over the years, they had experimented with guest players, and in 2002 Orton directed a full-blown Tin Hat Orchestra for a prestigious gig at the SFJAZZ Festival. But fans had to wonder: Would a reconfigured Tin Hat sound anything at all like the Tin Hat Trio they’d come to love? The answer lies in The Sad Machinery of Spring, the new combo’s inaugural CD, inspired by the wildly inventive work of novelist Bruno Schulz.
On first listen, the band seems to have little in common with its three-piece predecessor beyond the characteristic contributions of Kihlstedt (lyrical, edgy, whimsical) and Orton (mood-rich, filmic, groovy). As expected, the ensemble interplay is world-class and the compositions lyrical, haunting, elegant, and provocative. Which makes this a must-see band with an extraordinary debut album. But is it still Tin Hat? Yes and no.
The group’s sonic palette has been significantly enhanced by Ben Goldberg’s clarinets (B-flat, alto, contra-alto), Ara Anderson’s brass (trumpet, baritone horn), Zeena Parkins’ harp, and multiple keys (piano, pump organ, celeste, toy piano) and other unusual instruments (bulbul tarang: an Indian banjo; Marxophone: a zany mandolin-guitar-zither hybrid) played by various band members. Consequently, one could argue that such breadth in tonal color ventures so far beyond Tin Hat’s roots that there’s no connection anymore. Orton disagrees. “The group still has no classic rhythm section,” he says, “and we would still rather use extended techniques and oddball instruments to build our music than electronics or stomp boxes.” True enough. But these methods are not atypical of any number of contemporary avant-gardists. So what really distinguishes Tin Hat from other adventurous composer-improvisers? In a word: songs.
Bay Area forward-jazz vet Goldberg pinpoints the distinction of Kihlstedt and Orton’s vision: “These guys are cultivators of, and geniuses of, song form,” he says. “They are able to briefly open a window on the deepest mysteries … [enabling] a view into the beyond.”
Transcending the sum of their kaleidoscopic parts, Tin Hat’s tunes arguably defy time. “The group still maintains one foot in a 1930s parlor, nostalgic for the scratch of an old Victrola,” Orton suggests, “with the other wedged between the strings of a heavily prepared piano.” This is Tin Hat’s magic — its sound — which is somehow both anachronistic and ahead of its time. And in the end: timeless.