Corrections or additions?

This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 20, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Vivid Color with Pink Martini

The ever-morphing band Pink Martini defies classification. In a

telephone interview from Portland, Oregon, Thomas Lauderdale, the

group’s founder and artistic director, takes a stab at description.

"Mary Poppins meets the United Nations," he proposes. "The music is

always shifting. A classical orchestra becomes a rhumba band, plays

Hollywood musicals of the 1940s or ’50s and turns into a marching

Brazilian streetband."

Listening to "Hang on Little Tomato," the Pink Martini CD issued in

November, does not help pigeonhole the group. There is no point in

trying to set boundaries for their unfettered vitality. Their rhythmic

momentum is relentless. The musical styles are diverse. The mix of

languages is far-flung, including French, Italian, Japanese, and

Croatian, besides English. Confronting this recording, analysis is

worthless. The only thing to do is to enjoy the upbeat experience.

Pink Martini brings its sonic wonders to Trenton’s War Memorial on

Friday, April 22, as part of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s Pops

Series (the group performs without the NJSO). Performances at the New

Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark take place Thursday, April 21,

and Saturday, April 23. The programs, to be announced from the stage,

include tracks from Pink Martini’s two recordings, as well as new

material.

The present core membership of the 12-person group includes two

vocalists and four percussionists. The trombonist and violinist are

members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Joining the group for the

New Jersey performances are two Ohio residents: an additional cellist,

and a guitarist. "It’s the dream team," says Lauderdale.

A fortnight ago Pink Martini was in the midst of a European tour that

played in two dozen cities in eight countries, which Lauderdale ticks

off – England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, and

Turkey. His mind races along, and he has a go at listing the seven

dwarves in Walt Disney’s "Snow White." The dwarves are harder.

During the tour the band played sometimes in well-known concert halls,

such as London’s Royal Festival Hall and Paris’s Theatre du Chatelet.

Sometimes the group appeared in rock clubs. "It was about half and

half," Lauderdale says. "The band works well in concert halls, rock

clubs, and at private parties. Sometimes the concert hall is

frustrating for people who feel they want to dance."

When Pink Martini started 11 years ago it had four members.

Classically-trained pianist Lauderdale persuaded a vocalist, bongo

player, and bass to join him. "Then it grew organically," says the

ebullient Lauderdale. "We would meet people in the streets and ask

them to join us."

Accounting for the name, he says, "Pink Martini was the most fabulous

name I could think of in 1994." Four years after founding the band

Lauderdale lured Cambridge, Massachusetts-born China Forbes to move to

Portland and join the group as its lead singer. Forbes and Lauderdale,

both Harvard graduates, collaborate to create most of the lyrics and

music for the band.

Flexibility and responsiveness to the other band members are the keys

to their working together, Lauderdale says. "Flexibility is probably

the most important thing when you have a band of 12 people. People are

willing to try things that would never occur to me. That is the

greatness and the curse of working with other people. We try to take

into account the temperaments of the people involved, and their tastes

and ideas. We draw them out and balance things so we all feel good

when we take the stage. Everybody is kind and respectful of each

other. That’s significant."

"China’s more of a song writer than I am," Lauderdale adds.

Lauderdale’s admiration for Forbes is overt and tinged with spice.

"She is amazing with language. She has an incredible ear. That’s why

she can sing in 10 different languages. She keeps the band entertained

when we are traveling together. Being Oregonian, I have a tendency to

end sentences with prepositions. In Oregon we are always saying things

like, ‘Where did you get that at?’ It drives China crazy. She’s the

grammar queen of the band."

Reluctantly, Lauderdale puts up with amplified performances. "Piano

and cello were never meant to be miked," he says. "But people expect

to be able to hear everything at all times. Sometimes, though, the

amplification seems a little much. Pink Martini also does things that

are quieter. We’re not full throttle like a rock band. One can’t

listen to disco for two hours on end. There is a fine line between

acoustic and amplification."

The eclectic nature of Pink Martini seems a logical outgrowth of

Lauderdale’s family history. The conventions simply don’t apply. Born

in 1970, Lauderdale grew up in rural Indiana. "We were the weirdest

family around. I’m adopted. I have a black sister, a black brother,

and an Iranian brother. I’m the mystery Asian. My parents are

Caucasian. It’s unusual in rural Indiana for Caucasian parents to

adopt non-Caucasian children.

"We lived on a nursery that had its own garden and orchard. There were

Guernsey cows next door. My mother would get milk before it was

homogenized, would separate it, and then would make butter."

When Lauderdale was 10 or 11 the family left Indiana. "My father came

out of the closet," he says, "and we moved to Portland. My parents are

still best friends. My father’s now a minister. He performed the

marriage of my mother to her second husband."

Lauderdale found the family arrangement unremarkable. "The family was

just what it was," he says. However, some people close to the family

turned away. "My paternal grandparents didn’t speak to us in the

’70s," he says. "They didn’t want the neighbors to see the black

grandchildren."

Unconcerned for convention, Lauderdale embraces the off-beat in his

own life. Five foot four inches tall, according to his driver’s

license, he told the Eugene, Oregon "Register Guard," "I’m not a

composer, I’m a midget.

"I’m living in a building I bought that doesn’t have a kitchen," he

says, describing his Portland digs. "It’s a three-story brick building

that used to be a picture frame company." Lauderdale shares the space

with his boyfriend, Philip Iosca, a New Jersey native, who studied

textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design. "He puts my sloppiness

into shape," Lauderdale says.

Lauderdale started studying piano as a six-year old. By the time he

was 13 he performed Haydn and Mozart with the Oregon Symphony under

Norman Leyden. Spontaneously Lauderdale provides live audio examples,

playing snippets from the Haydn D major piano concerto and the

landmark Mozart piano sonata in C major that every intermediate piano

student studies.

"Leyden was Glenn Miller’s last arranger," Lauderdale says. "He built

the Oregon Symphony." Leyden, now in his mid 80s, is no longer with

the orchestra. However, he can be heard playing clarinet on Pink

Martini’s CD "Hang on Little Tomato."

Lauderdale graduated from Harvard, cum laude, in 1991, a history and

literature major. Returning to Portland, he got involved in politics,

working on environmental and social issues. He helped draft Portland’s

first civil rights ordinance.

‘My goal when I was a kid was to become mayor of Portland," Lauderdale

says. "I think I could generate a lot of excitement about bold and

good decisions for the city. In the last decade, the ugliness of

capitalism unmitigated by kindness has turned out to be a bad thing.

If there’s one city in the country that can grapple with that,

Portland is that city. Within Portland running for office would be

delightful. There are brilliant people, who get it. I can think of

about 20 people to include in a city government."

Still, Lauderdale has abandoned politics. "I couldn’t run for mayor

last year," he says. "I would have been shot by our manager."

As he surveys the American scene, Lauderdale attributes both the lack

of classical musicians and the malaise of society to a common cause.

"Most American children are not likely to go into classical music," he

says. "Classical musicians are mostly Asian. There is a lack of

discipline among Americans. There is too much available. In our

culture, opinions are the sound bites that people have heard in a news

broadcast. The value of disappointment is lacking in American

families. Working through disappointment always makes me come out

better. Life is full of contradictions that need to be acknowledged

and talked about."

Pink Martini’s first CD, "Sympathique," has sold more than 700,000

copies. The second recording, "Hang on Little Tomato," is edging

upwards in sales. The recordings are published on the band’s own

record label, Heinz, which is named after Lauderdale’s dog. A third

disk, leaning toward the popular, and a fourth, tending toward the

symphonic, are projected.

"We’re fortunate," says Lauderdale. "We’re able to support ourselves

as a band of 12 people. A lot has to do with luck." But then,

Lauderdale backs away from modesty. "The music is accessible," he

says. "It has a broad appeal. It’s multicultural and

multigenerational. Kids like this music. Grandparents like it. My dog

likes it."

Pink Martini is even popular in parts of Oregon beyond Portland that

Lauderdale describes as "creepy." "There are enclaves of people living

in the Oregon hills with underground food supplies," Lauderdale says.

"We like to play in those rural communities. They love us there. We

play the same music in the parts of Oregon with a

below-the-Mason-Dixon-line mentality as we play in Istanbul or Newark.

It’s encouraging."

— Elaine Strauss

Pink Martini, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton, Friday, April

22, at 8 p.m., 1-800-955-5566 or www.thewarmemorial.com; New Jersey

Performing Arts Center, Thursday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m., and

Saturday, April 23, at 8 p.m. 1-800-ALLEGRO. Tickets for all concerts

are $18 to $67.


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