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
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
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
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
"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
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.
— 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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