Pink Martini

Stirred to perfection

Pink Martini‘s frothy cosmopolitan sound is based as much on a shameless love affair as it is in global diplomacy.

By Naila Francis

Thomas Lauderdale is enamored with beauty. That may seem a peculiarity for the former aspiring politician who even based his decision to go to Harvard — where he studied history and literature — on the pedigree it would afford him in his future work.

But Lauderdale, the founder of the urbane mini-orchestra that is Pink Martini, refers often to its charm when talking about the inspired musical pastiche that is the group’s hallmark. Blending an old Hollywood glamour with a contemporary sophistication and global sensibility, the 12-piece band has been an acclaimed favorite in Europe and other far-flung destinations like Turkey and Lebanon ever since releasing its debut album “Sympathique” in 1997.

“There is an element of musicology to it,” says Lauderdale, of the song catalog that spans everything from obscure film gems and French cabaret songs to Afro-Cuban rumbas and classical jazz. “In the end, the goal is just to create a really fun and beautiful atmosphere onstage.”

While the U.S. may have been initially slower to embrace Pink Martini‘s cosmopolitan confection of bright sounds, audiences stateside have been happily succumbing to the group’s sexy nouveau lounge act, thanks largely to its performances with symphony orchestras across the country, including the Boston Pops and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, following its orchestral debut with the Oregon Symphony in 1998. Today, the group, based in Portland, is enjoying headlining status and comes to the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton Monday and to the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia March 4.

“It’s amazing to me that we’ve gotten as far as we’ve been able to get just because we’re outside of the typical American band story in terms of the kind of music we’re playing,” says Lauderdale, who serves as the band’s artistic director. “The symphony thing definitely helped. At one point, it was the only way we had any kind of career in the United States.

“One of the most interesting things about the band now is looking out at the audience. It’s always a very diverse sea of faces — conservative people sitting next to liberal people sitting next to grandmothers sitting next to hipsters and it’s all under one rooftop.”

The 37-year-old Indiana native, a classically trained pianist who appeared in his first orchestra performance at age 12, was working on a campaign against Oregon’s anti-gay rights initiative in 1994 when he organized a fundraising concert, for which the opening act failed to show.

“… So I threw on a cocktail dress and started the band,” says Lauderdale. “It was very campy at the beginning — we were doing things like the theme songs from ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ and ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ — and became more sort of earnest as the years went on.”

Initially a quartet, the group began playing at other political fundraisers championing civil rights, the environment, affordable housing and other progressive causes. As the droll element gave way to a more elegant aesthetic, Lauderdale began to enroll other musicians, recruiting lead vocalist China Forbes — a fellow Harvard grad who would sing Verdi and Puccini to his piano accompaniments during late nights in their dormitories — from New York City, where the velvet-voiced singer had been working on her own folk-rock project.

“I thought I was really going to go into politics,” says Lauderdale. “Then I thought it was much more fun to be playing and traveling around the world than facing angry constituents in a fluorescently lit office.”

Pink Martini‘s cross-cultural sound — the band’s third and most recent CD “Hey Eugene!” includes lyrics in Japanese, French, Portuguese and Spanish — is actually rooted in the Hollywood of the ’40s and ’50s.

“There’s a great amount of inherent beauty in everything that was created in that culture — you can look at the films and photographs and fashion and even something as innocuous as the way Life magazine was laid out where there was lots of space and everything has this sense of grace,” says Lauderdale. “But with the past, not too far below the surface, there were all kinds of problems. … The challenge is to draw inspiration from that period but to recontextualize it in the 21st century so it’s more inclusive and better for everyone.”

The group’s repertoire naturally extends to covers — the swaying samba of the Carmen Miranda song, “Tempo Perdido,” for instance, or the lazy minimalism of “Tea for Two,” featuring jazz legend Jimmy Scott. But the band is equally adept at bringing a festive, globe-trotting flair to its originals, in large part because of its makeup. Forbes and Lauderdale themselves come from multicultural backgrounds, she being part African-American and he coming from a racially diverse adoptive family.

“Everybody in the band has his or her own story,” says Lauderdale. “Martin Zarzar comes from Peru. Then you have Robert Taylor, who sort of grew up in Illinois studying with every brass player in the Chicago Symphony and then taught himself how to play jazz on the trumpet in recent years. … There’s generally a broad curiosity inside the band itself.”

Collectively having studied an estimated 10 to 15 languages, they rarely hesitate to learn another, going so far as to bring in a professor of Arabic at Portland State University, Dirgham Sbait, to shepherd them through the darkly swinging “Bukra wba’do” (“Tomorrow and the day after”) on “Hey Eugene!”

“It’s music of the world but not world music,” says Lauderdale of such typical polyglot exuberance. “It’s very melodic and the lyrics tend to be more ethereal in some ways, but there’s very much a sense of going out at night and carousing, too.”

– The Intelligencer