Pink Martini: Joyous Music In Trying Times

Mixing eras, cultures and attitudes with trademark panache

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Pink Martini
By Autumn De WIlde

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Red carpet, marble floors, filigree and fresco: When it comes to setting the tone, Manhattan’s Beacon Theatre fits Pink Martini like a satin glove. Last September, performing material from their new record, Get Happy (Heinz), the self-styled “little orchestra” pulled in some 2,000 adoring fans for a two-set tour de force of the past, present and future of lounge music.

Onstage, Pink Martini’s aesthetic is often camp—lush arrangements err on the side of over-the-top; many call for sing-alongs or conga lines—but the effect is not for lack of seriousness. These musicians are, in their way, seriously anti-serious. “When I was originally thinking about Get Happy,” says pianist and bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, 43, “I was thinking there’s this sense of ‘How on Earth are we going to get through this period?’ Hardcore capitalism, crazy healthcare problems, extreme differences in distribution of wealth. … I thought what we needed was a giddy, fantastic group of songs that run totally counter to everything going on in the culture.”

But Get Happy—which includes appearances by Rufus Wainwright with the von Trapps, and Phyllis Diller—isn’t all champagne bubbles. There are 16 songs in nine languages, and most of the tracks run deeper than they first let on. The Japanese karaoke classic “Zundoko Bushi,” for instance—written by a fallen soldier about his lover’s affair and the letters she writes with her tears—sounds like a spy movie set in a disco. With this much woe under the surface, “Get Happy” starts to sound like a mission statement.

In 1994, Lauderdale founded Pink Martini in Portland, Ore., as a high-society house band for politically progressive fundraisers. Two decades and six studio albums later, the roster has expanded from four to 12 members, including Lauderdale on piano, vocalists China Forbes and Storm Large, trombonist Robert Taylor, trumpeter Gavin Bondy, violinist Nicholas Crosa, cellist Pansy Chang, guitarist Dan Faehnle, bassist Phil Baker, drummer Anthony Jones, conguero/percussionist Brian Lavern Davis and singer-percussionist Timothy Nishimoto. For their engagement at the Beacon, the ensemble featured seven additional string players and a harpist. “Thomas is naturally drawn to everything from the past,” says Forbes. “He lives his life in a vintage car with a vintage suitcase, with everything collected and curated. He’s kept files on everyone he’s ever known. He’s a true historian. He’s just always been that way.”

And yet, the 90-some songs in Pink Martini’s recorded catalog cover at least as much ground geographically as they do historically. At shows, Lauderdale pulls out numbers from around the world like trinkets from his jacket lining. The bandleader traces his cosmopolitan bent back to his upbringing: “I grew up in a multicultural household. Everybody in my family’s adopted. I have a black brother, a black sister, an Iranian brother and I’m the mystery Asian. We’re all from other parts of the world, so there was always a sense of something larger than just English and rock and roll.”

“It’s really rare to have someone who’s so classically trained not be so rigid in his thinking,” says Large, who was invited to join the band in April 2011. Days before a sold-out four-night run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Forbes suffered an acute hemorrhage in her throat. Agreeing to cover for her at the eleventh hour, Large learned 10 songs in five languages in four days. She was flown to Washington in her evening gown. She hit the tarmac, took the stage and has continued to perform with Pink Martini ever since. “[Lauderdale] has such a wild, open-hearted, open-minded love of all music,” she says. “And if it doesn’t have a kicking rhythm, he’ll give it one.”

By way of illustration, the band’s sultry stomper “And Then You’re Gone,” off 2009’s Splendor in the Grass, sets Schubert’s Fantasia over a clave beat with horn lines more or less grafted from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” When Lauderdale breaks down his pastiche for the audience, he grins as though confessing to something naughty.

Pink Martini’s live show conjures a fantasy of ageless glamor. This is formal play, baroque and zany, ritzy but also childlike. The sense of magical realism doesn’t totally register on their albums, though there are clues. The cover of Get Happy shows Forbes’ 5-year-old son spellbound, surrounded by floating balls of color, evoking the dreamlike imagery of filmmaker Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon. “We suspend reality,” says Large. “We’re getting [the audience] to get onstage and dance with each other, and they get swept up in the beauty and inclusiveness of it all. It’s a rare thing nowadays. People miss that and they don’t even realize they miss it.”

The crowd at the Beacon knows exactly what they miss. Tidbits about Diller and Judy Garland and Dinah Shore draw small savoring noises; they clap when Lauderdale calls Maria Tănase “the Edith Piaf of Romania” and Saori Yuki “the Barbra Streisand of Japan.” Memorable in itself, Pink Martini’s set brings nostalgia full circle: This isn’t just reminiscence, it’s reimagination.

Originally published in December 2013

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