The "small orchestra" that plays The Orpheum Monday night began by playing "Moon River" for equal rights twenty-plus years ago.
Pink Martini didn’t become a lounge band for the reasons you might expect. No one watched Robin and the Seven Hoods and said That! I want to be cool like that! No one worked in a secondhand store, saw a few sharkskin suits and thought, Bands have started with less. No one lucked into a stash of exotica hi-fi albums and stereo test records in a Salvation Army and wondered, How can I make that sound? No, Pink Martini started when Thomas Lauderdale got political.
“There was a nasty attempt to amend the Oregon constitution to declare homosexuality illegal,” he says. Lauderdale was fresh out of college and working on the campaign in opposition to the amendment. He had recently seen the Pee-Wee Herman Christmas special, which included an appearance by The Del Rubio Triplets, and he brought them to town for campaign events. “They were somewhere between the ages of 70 and 80 and wore matching mini-skirts and booties and played ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ and ‘Whip It,’” he remembers. “I brought them to town to do a series of concerts at nursing homes and hospitals and retirement homes and rotary meetings, and at the end of their sets, they’d say very sweetly, Please vote no on Metro 13. At the end of the week, we had a big community-wide concert and needed an opening act, so I threw on a cocktail dress and started Pink Martini.”
The first incarnation of Pink Martini involved four musicians playing a lot of Henry Mancini—“Charade,” “Moon River,” “It Must Be Tonight” among others—and it started by playing a couple of years’ worth of benefits for a checklist of liberal causes—libraries, clean water, public broadcasting, music education, affordable housing, and the like. The band never played outside the Portland city limits during that time, but it slowly added members, growing to six musicians, then eight as the material required and the money allowed. In 1998, the “small orchestra”—as Pink Martini now calls itself—released its debut album, Sympathetique, which changed Pink Martini’s trajectory to such a degree that it reissued the album last year. It remains on tour celebrating 20 years of Sympathetique, and that tour brings Pink Martini to The Orpheum Monday night.
The album begins with two requests for your attention. The first is a lush sweep of notes on the harp—a familiar faux eleganza gesture that made clear that the album lived in another world from the Titanic and Armageddon soundtracks, Garth Brooks’ Sevens, DMX’s It’s Dark and Hell is Hot, Master P’s MP Da Last Don, Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, all of which topped the Billboard album charts that year. Then, vocalist China Forbes powers out “a MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA—” to make sure you’re listening. The band joins her with a clavé rhythm when she finishes the title phrase, “—do Rio,” for a version of a song that debuted in the 1946 Rita Hayworth movie Gilda. Sympathetique ranged from the almost obligatory “Brazil” to the waltz-for-one version of Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera,” and tracks found more inspiration south of the border and in Polynesia than on the Las Vegas strip.
The first incarnation of the band was, by Lauderdale’s admission, a little campy, but no Mancini covers made it to Sympathetique. “Amado Rio” and “Brazil” became part of the repertoire fairly early on though, as was an Afro-Cuban version of Ravel’s “Bolero” that was recorded for the album but removed due to legal wrangles with the Ravel estate. Those have been resolved, and the track was restored to the 20th anniversary reissue.
“By the time we got to the first album, the campiness had disappeared,” Lauderdale says. “It was more Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, French music hall, and global. It was more straight-ahead earnest. The goal was to make beautiful music that I was would want to listen to myself.” The movement away from its campier days didn’t happen overnight, but the recording process for Sympathetique brought it to a definitive end. Lauderdale could hear that tracks had an elegant, timeless beauty and grace that didn’t need any theatrics to connect with audiences. Once he knew what he had, he couldn’t see a good reason to do anything that might be perceived as belittling it.
It turns out he was right, and the title track helped the album become an unexpected hit in France, though its popularity was aided by timing. France was in the middle of a campaign for a shortened work week, which helped “Sympathetique,”—subtitled “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler”—find receptive ears. A song that announced, “I don’t want to work” was right on time and so popular that it won Song of the Year in 1998 in the French equivalent of the Grammys. The song and Pink Martini’s international spirit helped the group find audiences around the world, and it is now central to the band’s identity. Last year, Pink Martini released Non Ouais! The French Songs of Pink Martini, and in 2011, it put out 1969 with Saori Yuki, who Lauderdale describes as “the Japanese Barbara Streisand.” On the album, she sings hits from around the world that charted the year she had her first hit in Japan, including “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Mais Que Nada.”
Pink Martini’s global aesthetic will take the band to performances in Turkey, Hawaii, South Korea, Hungary, Spain, France, and California this summer, which represents a different level of commitment to exotica than the band’s lounge revival peers demonstrated. Lauderdale thinks of Pink Martini developing “in parallel” with those bands and not really part of the same thing. “For me, it was more about the music,” he says. “When we started playing with symphony orchestras, that made it more different.” Still, he says, “I love listening to Combustible Edison, and the re-releases of Esquivel, which I thought were awesome and pretty campy. But incredible music.”