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The mix makes Pink Martini

The band starts with a variety of musical styles and blends in an array of languages to create a sound with distinctive flavor.

Published May 18, 2006

Had Thomas Lauderdale performed a pops concert with the Florida Orchestra earlier in his career, it likely would have been as a gifted young solo pianist playing Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue or some other light classical favorite.

Now, as his band prepares for a three-night stint with the orchestra, Lauderdale is in far greater demand as a member of Pink Martini, the Portland, Ore., ensemble with a sound that's equal parts nostalgia and slick modernity.

Some compare Pink Martini with cocktail combos or with groups specializing in jazz fusion, Latin dance or French cafe music. Pick almost any style or period and chances are you'll find at least a hint of it in Pink Martini's music.

Even the band's name - alluding to the distinctively colored mixed drink - practically defines the term cosmopolitan.

Lead vocalists China Forbes and Timothy Nishimoto are as comfortable singing in French, Spanish, Italian, Croatian and Japanese as they are in English. Likewise, Lauderdale and his nine-piece battery of strings, brass and percussion fluidly incorporate dance rhythms of Cuba, South America, Spain and Africa.

Henry Adams, the Florida Orchestra's director of subscriptions, was eager to host Pink Martini. A former employee of the Oregon Symphony, Adams remembers Lauderdale during the pianist's pre-Pink Martini days.

"He would play these crossover-type pieces with the orchestra in Portland and fascinate everyone," Adams recalls. "He was this super-intelligent guy and a smashing musician to boot. My impression was of someone in a great place being bombarded by a bunch of influences and taking in all of it."

Lauderdale founded Pink Martini in 1994, and the band has been expressing all those influences ever since.

"If you put on one of their CDs, you'd think you were listening to an anthology of some kind," Adams says. "It's so hard to put a handle on them. Musically, they're everywhere. They're cultural chameleons. Personally, I appreciate their commitment to languages, but even better are all the moods they create with those languages.''

Pink Martini is no stranger to orchestras. Among the band's most prominent collaborators have been the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Pops and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. This weekend marks their debut with the Florida Orchestra.

The band's membership is as diverse as its music. Forbes, the velvet-voiced crown jewel of the ensemble, is African-American, while Lauderdale and others in the band are of various Asian and European descents.

"We represent a truer vision of America because we're heterogeneous," Lauderdale says by phone from his office at Heinz Records, Pink Martini's in-house recording label in Portland. "If you look at pop music, it's either white or black. It doesn't mirror the country as it really is."

If Lauderdale, who holds degrees in history and literature from Harvard, sounds a bit like a politician, that's because he almost became one. In addition to classical piano, one of Lauderdale's early aspirations was to run for mayor of Portland.

Attending campaign rallies changed his focus. Finding the music at such events disturbingly drab, he and his musically inclined friends redirected their energies and set out to improve the sonic situation.

He didn't have to look far to find a lead singer; he and Forbes are both Harvard alums.

"We used to go into our common room late at night and sing opera arias really loudly," Lauderdale says. "That's the kind of person she is. She's incredibly talented but also approachable and real, and there's a quality to her voice where people feel like they can sing along in the shower or while they're driving. Her voice really is like no one else's. She's also completely gorgeous."

Once Forbes got on board, it wasn't long until Pink Martini had a cult following in Portland. Lending its name to various political causes and tapping into its members' ethnic roots won even more listeners.

"We started out playing campy TV tunes and then gradually it became less campy, more earnest, and more global,'' Lauderdale says. "Our first melodies sounded French to us, so we wrote them in French. Then we started traveling and it made sense to sing in the languages spoken where we were. For us, it was a natural progression."

There are two Pink Martini albums on the market, Sympathique from 1997 and Hang on Little Tomato from 2004. Both are enjoying strong sales in the United States, but they're doing especially well in Europe. In France, Little Tomato has gone gold and earned nominations for the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards.

Material from these two albums will comprise the bulk of this weekend's program, but the group also will introduce a few songs from its upcoming album.

Lauderdale described the new disc as "zippier," with a Portuguese influence, but it isn't likely to stray too far from what has made Pink Martini a popular drink on the musical menu.

"I think we appeal to a diverse audience because of old-fashioned romanticism," Lauderdale says. "Our music is an extension of this romantic sound that the band itself generates. Also our music shifts constantly, like an escapade across the globe, so it's never monotonous. People love it, and so far, they seem to be listening to it again and again."

[Last modified May 18, 2006, 06:32:19]

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