Another Round of Pink Martini
(From Organica Quarterly, Journal of the Arts & Sciences, Summer 2002)
by Gregory Tozian
(Note from 2010: this article was written for Organica, several years before I co-wrote a song with Thomas Lauderdale for the band’s second album, “Hang On Little Tomato.” Our song is called “Veronique,” based on an old girlfriend of my Paris roommate, Fraser MacNaught. Everybody and everything is material, n’est pas?)
Nearly five years ago, a large Portland, Oregon, ensemble named Pink Martini did that most enviable of things in the music world: they came out of left field on their own one-record label with an album that became an instant, international classic of its genre.
But what is Pink Martini’s genre?
Though the gorgeous 56 minutes and 35 seconds of Sympathique have been called “lounge music,” “Big Band pop,” and even “cosmopolitan rumba” by various pundits, the album is happily unclassifiable. It may have elements of various popular musical styles, but it also has far more—including the allure of a Fellini soundtrack, the depth of classical music, and the wonder of something that sounds fresh each time it is heard.
Instrumental influences for Pink Martini include Ravel, Chopin, Nino Rota, and half a dozen others. Vocally, the album is a musical journey around the world. There are the requisite few songs in English, such as the little-heard “Amado Mio,” from the classic film noir Gilda, and the more familiar “Qué Será Será” and “Brazil,” all done in refreshingly unexpected arrangements. But there are also tunes sung in French (the title song), Spanish (“La Soledad,” and “Donde Estás, Yolanda?”), Japanese (“Song of the Black Lizard”), and Greek (“Never on Sunday”). Of the dozen songs on the album, only a couple are originals (including Lauderdale and Forbes’ title track).
Sympathique, which means “likable” in French, is simply one of those rare records—like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue—that one seems never to tire of. It’s what stereo equipment review magazines of the 1950s would call a desert island disc. Part of the reason for the longevity of the album is the excellence of the musicianship, the extremely good taste in the selection of material, and the perfectionist over-seeing of bandleader-pianist Thomas Lauderdale.
Lauderdale, the band’s founder and artistic director, is a five-foot dynamo, raised in a plant nursery in rural Idaho. He admits to “growing up on Ray Coniff, the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar, which terrified me, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, and the Norman Tabernacle Choir.” Now about 30 years old, he has been playing classical piano since the age of six, and has been a solo guest artist with several major symphony orchestras. While at Harvard (where he graduated cum laude with a degree in Literature and History), Lauderdale met and befriended China Forbes, a talented singer-songwriter, who can apparently sing in any language to which she applies her mind and tongue.
Having originally commuted from New York for Pink Martini recording sessions and gigs in the Pacific Northwest, Forbes finally made the commitment to move to Portland several years ago. Since that time, the band has become more stable as a performing unit, and their successes have been impressive. Pink Martini now plays extensively, and often, throughout Europe and the U.S. The title song of their debut album has been featured on a couple of national music compilations, and became a radio hit in France, where it was featured on car commercials, and got nominated for a French “Grammy.”
The band has played with soul legend Al Green at the William Morris Agency’s Centennial Anniversary in Los Angeles. They sat in with Ringo Starr and Elton John on the song “Twist and Shout” at a benefit show at the Cannes Film Festival (where they have become regulars). They recorded music for the George of the Jungle television cartoon series. And perhaps most tellingly of all, they are the subject of more than a few “fan sites,” in more than a few languages, on the World Wide Web.
All of this gives rise to the question that Lauderdale and Company hear with monotonous regularity, “When is there going to be another Pink Martini album?” We caught up with Lauderdale at his record-book-instrument-and-furniture-packed loft in downtown Portland to pose this and other queries. The pianist answered passionately, punctuating his responses with a steady stream of musical breaks, which had him spinning selections from his upcoming album, mixed with beloved CD and vinyl snippets from other musicians. (Some favorite cuts included vintage Serge Gainsbourg, house remixes of Shirley Bassey, Little Jimmy Scott’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and Francis Poulenc’s chilling opera Dialogues of the Carmelites.)
“Why another album is taking so long is pretty simple. You have to face yourself in the morning, and at night,” says Lauderdale, without a trace of irony. “And the great thing about recording for Heinz Records (the label owned by Lauderdale, and named after his gigantic, music-loving dog) is that you don’t have to be in a hurry. I do have a pressing sense of urgency to the members of the band to get a record out,” admits the bandleader. “But I have to balance that with being able to live with myself.”
Part of his deliberation comes from wanting to maintain a very high level of quality in the songwriting, Lauderdale says. “It’s almost like we’re recording another first album,” he says. “Except for this one, most of the pieces we’ve written, or written with friends. It’s problematic,” he continues, “because every piece on the last album was every one of the composers’ masterpieces. [Jay] Livingston and [Ray] Evans wrote 500 songs, but ‘Qué Será Será’ was their best. ‘Never on Sunday’ was the best song of [Manos] Hanjidakis. And Ravel, what’s better of his than ‘Bolero’? There’s a lot to live up to.
“But there’s this constant pressure to write,” shrugs Lauderdale. “So, begrudgingly I’ve attempted to write songs. Still, I struggle with the notion. I come from a classical music background. And I feel that there’s so much beautiful music that’s already been written. Why clutter it up more?” However, Lauderdale acknowledges that once pen is in hand “things happen,” which seem like songwriting Kismet.
“What is exciting is to get the opportunity to work with people who are not musicians,” he says, “and that can bring fresh ideas to the music. For instance, writing a song with [foreign photographer] Mario Lalich. Or sitting on the deck at Blue Hour [a popular Portland restaurant/bar] with Alba Clemente [Italian female TV star of the 1970s] and writing a song on the paper tablecloth, and going into the studio that afternoon and recording it with her. That’s a big kick.”
Lauderdale walks to the CD player and puts on the song in question, “Una Notte a Napoli (One Night in Napoli),” a haunting lover’s ballad about a woman who meets “a fallen angel,” yet takes to the skies with this man with “no wings.” “The whole concept of the next album is ‘floating world,’ what the Japanese call the ‘Ukiyo-e*,’” says Lauderdale. “I want the album, visually, too, to have that feeling. I’m toying with the idea that the album cover has those colors (familiar to lovers of antiquated Asian art). Like almost an ‘old wallpaper’ look: monochromatic. Monochromatic on the outside,” he adds, “and still beautiful—which opens up into this world that is rich. So each song is like a jewel.”
The musicianship on the new album shines, as it did on the first record (see the musicians’ list insert at bottom). Former male vocalist Pepe Raphael has left the band, but there are some new additions. Pansy Chang, a symphony cellist who has traveled with the band, is on the album. So are guest artists Michael Spiro, a longtime student of Francisco Aquabella, and an acknowledged expert in Afro/Cuban drumming. And there’s also drumming by the Brazilian master Jorge “Alabe” Bezerra, who specializes in Samba and folkloric Brazilian drumming. Finally, photographer Adam Levy, himself a drummer, is co-producing the album with Lauderdale.
Lauderdale says one of the stumbling blocks to finishing the new album is that, after coming back from a European tour in the late summer of 2001, he was able to hear with “new ears” the material the band had been recording. To him it sounded too fast, too loud, “too much, and not enough love,” he says. “Everything we had made [on the record] made me nervous and tense. It didn’t sound patient [like Sympathique].”
“I learned on the first album,” Lauderdale says, “that what’s appropriate on stage at a Euro rock festival or jazz festival circuit, there’s no way to effectively communicate that on a record. You couldn’t listen to that at 11 o’clock in the morning, or 11 o’clock at night for that matter. Nina Simone might be able to pull it off. But I can’t,” he says, never cracking a smile. “And I want to make a record you could play at a party, or as you wake up in the morning, or as you make love. A record that’s appropriate any time of the day.”
The musician puts a few other selections from Pink Martini’s new album on the CD player, frequently noting, “…this hasn’t been mixed yet…,” and ” …that’s where the trumpet solo will go…,” and “…I’m contemplating putting a harp on that…” (by which he means, of course, the upright, triangular, 46-stringed instrument, not a harmonica).
Some of the music for the new album is reminiscent of the first Pink Martini disc. Some of it is entirely new and different, such as a whimsical 1930s-styled instrumental which one could imagine emitting from a Victrola, and which Lauderdale wrote with New York artist Patrick Abbey. Renowned jazz and classical conductor Norman Leyden plays the clarinet on the piece. “Ultimately, one of the things I like best about what Pink Martini has been able to do,” says Lauderdale, “is to truly appeal to people of all ages. I can’t stand labels on the music. I think the whole ‘lounge music’ label is irksome. I know our music appeals to a broad cross section of listeners, because I see them at the shows.”
“Music for me is like a dinner party,” he adds, “You don’t want to sit down next to people who all think the same way, and talk about the same things. Each of us wants a huge tapestry of influences in our lives. That makes it so much more interesting. And that’s what I want for the music.”
Lauderdale says he has a simple formula for judging whether his music has hit the mark, and one gets the feeling he’s only half joking in his admission. “Ultimately, it’s about children and dogs,” he says. “I know of people who put on Sympathique to lull their two-year-old children to sleep. And when I audition a new musician, I can tell if they’re going to work out by the way Heinz reacts. If he starts howling, it’s a bad idea. If he rolls over on his back, I’ve got a winner.”
Finally, Lauderdale laughs.
“Actually we’ve got so much material, 40 songs, which we’ve written or recorded over the past four years. I think we’re going to put out two albums simultaneously: the Pop Album, and the Non-Pop Album, 12 songs on each,” he says. “But whatever it is, hopefully I will be able to live with myself in 20 years with these songs. For me, music is simply how I get through the day. And I’m really practicing hard to try and become better.”
Gregory Tozian is the author of five books, including fiction (Doll Head Eater) and non-fiction works on photography (Fidel’s Cuba), fashion (The Aloha Shirt), architecture (Beth Israel: A Temple For the Ages), and music (20th Century Pop).
Pink Martini band members on Sympathique who were still playing with the band at the last count include: Thomas Lauderdale (piano), China Forbes (vocals), Robert Taylor (trombone, trumpet), Brian Davis (congas, timbales, and percussion), Doug Smith (vibes and percussion), Richard Rothfus (bongos, drums, and percussion), Dan Faehnle (guitar), Derek Rieth (percussion), Gavin Bondy (trumpet), and John Wager (bass).
Look for Pink Martini in your town. Upcoming concert and record-release information is available on the band’s web site, www.pinkmartini.com.