3 Nights with Pink Martini
by greg stepanich
There may be no band better suited for the age of anthropology than Pink Martini—with its catalog of rediscoveries and antiqued originals, its chansons and sambas in a Baedeker of tongues, and its dozen or so members clad in the eveningwear our elders wore to company holiday parties.
This month, the “little orchestra” from Oregon brings its diverse songbook to South Florida for three dates, beginning January 19 at The Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater, and continuing on to Naples and West Palm Beach. Its much-admired founding lead singer, China Forbes, will stay home for this leg of the tour to spend time with her 3-year-old son; in her place will be Storm Large, who first joined the band in early 2011 and who will be featured on its upcoming record, tentatively called Get Happy.
The animating spirit of Pink Martini is Artistic Director (as well as pianist, composer, and arranger) Thomas Lauderdale from Portland, Oregon, who famously has said he was moved to found his own ensemble in 1994 after enduring a dreary succession of musical mishaps on the rubber-chicken circuit. He called on Forbes, a college friend from Harvard, to be the band’s voice, and the two wrote Pink Martini’s signature anthem, “Sympathique,” written in French and featuring an indelible refrain: “Je ne veux pas travailler” (“I don’t want to work”).
Deliberately retro, the band’s success partly has been due to its appeal for younger audiences, who relish its enthusiastic multiculturalism—and not only because you can dance to it. “They’re my kind of people,” says 21-year-old fan Karina Chow, a daughter of Chinese and German immigrants. She also finds its repertoire a welcome relief from the “four-beat pop” that dominates youth culture. “It’s not so formulaic; it’s got more emotion to it,” she says.
The band’s eclectic, multilingual set lists have won it a devoted alt-music following, and Forbes has become something of a sex symbol for the brainy set: exotically pretty but approachable, with a forceful mezzo-soprano. The band has released seven albums on its own Heinz Records label, beginning with Sympathique (1997), followed by Hang on Little Tomato (2004), Hey Eugene! (2007), and Splendor in the Grass (2009). Its multidenominational holiday album, Joy to the World (2010), was “basically commissioned” by the Starbucks coffee chain and is looking to become its bestselling disc. In 2011, the band released Retrospective and 1969, a collection including Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Yoake No Scat” (“Melody for a New Dawn”), then a breakout hit in Japan for its singer Saori Yuki. Early last November, Pink Martini completed a tour of Japan with Yuki. “She has a huge fan base,” Lauderdale says. “We got the Japanese public to come onstage and do conga lines around her. It was fantastic.”
Lauderdale comes by his unusual musical outlook partly as a reaction to what he sees as a tacky, profit-obsessed contemporary culture that can’t hold a candle to an older, more honest America. He also has a deep affection for older-generation entertainers, a respect that last January led him to the door of comedian Phyllis Diller, whom he persuaded to contribute to the Get Happy album. In her Los Angeles living room, he sat at the piano as the 94-year-old classically trained pianist sang and recorded “Smile,” the Charlie Chaplin standard. Diller died in August with “Smile” as one of her last testaments.
Besides a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar, and drums, the band’s roster includes a harp, violin and cello, trumpet and trombone, three percussionists, and a backup vocalist who also plays percussion. Each member has a strong résumé that includes side projects and work with multiple other musical organizations. Professionals, in other words, which is something Large appreciates. “All of us are older, and we’ve been playing music forever,” she says. “It’s touring with grown-ups.”
Lauderdale adds, “The band has an appeal that really crosses lines that are seldom crossed in this country. My hope is that, in a very tiny, tiny way, the shows that we do are uplifting.” Pink Martini, 8 p.m., Sunday, January 19, at The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Tickets are $25–$95.
photography by autumn de wilde (pink martini, forbes); james chiang (performance)