Pink Martini’s ‘mini-orchestra’ intoxicates listeners

By Todd Simmons

The dazzling 12-piece “mini-orchestra” Pink Martini headlines a show this weekend at Avery Fisher Hall. In the midst of a national tour promoting their eclectic new album, “Hey Eugene!,” the multicultural band from Portland, Oregon continues to be as entertaining as ever.

Fresh off of a plum slot playing the post-Academy Awards Governors Ball in Hollywood, Pink Martini is making a rare appearance in the city. This could stem from the difficulty of touring a band that swells from the regular 12-piece to more than 30 depending on the program. Their recent hometown New Year’s Eve shows at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall have featured an orchestra, a choir, and special guests ranging from the Mayor of Portland to conductor Norman Leyden. It can’t be easy finding the kind of tour bus such a setup requires. Despite the band’s having sold more than 1.3 million records, it may be premature for them to invest in a private Pink Martini jet.

The New Year’s Eve show has become an annual extravaganza in Portland. Thomas M. Lauderdale puts together innovative programs that draws an all-ages crowd but is musically sophisticated. This year’s show, featuring the long-awaited return of actress Jane Powell, is the stuff legends are made of. The golden-era movie queen—a longtime New Yorker—hadn’t been back to Portland in decades. Lauderdale lured her home, where Mayor Tom Potter proclaimed the date “Jane Powell Day.” Powell narrated an exhilarating reworking of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” backed by a full orchestra. Even though the city has been turning out great pop bands at a dizzying pace, Pink Martini might be the most entertaining. They are catchy live performers who have truly carved out their own niche with a Vegas-meets-Rio, big band-meets-lounge aesthetic.

The story goes like this: Lauderdale graduated from Harvard, where he met singer China Forbes. After completing his studies in history and literature, he headed back to Portland with aspirations to become the city’s mayor. The attraction to politics sparked him to play music at fundraising events—gigs that, in turn, evolved into Pink Martini. Although the success of the band ended up derailing his political career, Lauderdale used his social flair to become a de facto social “mayor” of Portland anyway. From the looks of the holiday party he threw at the Pink Martini office, which doubles as his home, much of the city’s artistic community turned up for an avalanche of cupcakes and champagne. Lauderdale held court, leading the crowd through holiday songs well after midnight. A few nights later he took the limelight again, only this time before 2,776 people on New Year’s Eve. One of his gifts is making a cocktail party or a big show seem the same. Just a few (thousand) close friends out for a good time.

Pink Martini’s decision not to sign with a major label to release their first album might have led some to speculate they were insane. Such a large band must have needed the financial support and the exposure that one of the “bigs” could presumably provide, right? Wrong. Instead, Lauderdale formed his own label, Heinz Records, named for his dog. And in the ensuing years not only found acceptance but also serious international success. “Sympathique” became a hit in France, and the fanfare spreads from there. As opposed to pulling in a mere dollar per record, they were able to keep $8 by having their own label.

The combination of the alluring Forbes on vocals and Lauderdale on piano makes an entertaining show. But add a gaggle of other top jazz/classical musicians, and it turns into a spectacular creation. The blend of Latin, pop, classical, jazz, and lounge is a brew that could easily be kitschy. These are highly experienced players with a passionate director—who simultaneously bursts with joy from his piano bench. His enthusiasm is contagious. With a firm grasp on the intricacies of Pink Martini’s sound, Lauderdale is emcee, performer, conductor, and goodwill ambassador.

One might hope that this weekend’s show would include another guest appearance. Eighty-one-year-old singing legend Jimmy Scott performs a stirring a duet with China Forbes on the new record, as the pair tackles the standard “Tea for Two.” Written in 1925 for “No, No, Nanette,” the musical made famous for its quasi-involvement in the trade that brought Babe Ruth here from the Red Sox, a Jimmy Scott appearance is one more reason the musical brings pleasure to New Yorkers.

Considering the way the group took the stage at Carnegie Hall in 2007, it is fitting that Lincoln Center gets a chance to host these dynamos from the Pacific Northwest. Despite bucking traditional record industry models and eschewing major record labels, Pink Martini has a significant following and performs in English, French, Japanese, Portuguese and Arabic.