Even if their sound was less-than-wonderful, you’d have to love a band named after a froufrou alcoholic beverage, and with a sophomore album called Hang On Little Tomato.
Fortunately, the music from Pink Martini is a chic and effective blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms and smooth lounge jazz, with catchy melodies and sweetly unpretentious lyrics.
“When it’s dark, and not a bit of sparkling sing-song sunshine from above,” croons lead singer China Forbes in the title track. “Just hang on, hang on to the vine… soon you’ll be divine.”
It’s this sort of quirky and evocative sentiment that has fans and media folks salivating over the Portland-based band that was originally created as a one-off.
It was 1994, and a rightwing nutjob group called the Oregon Citizens Alliance was trying to pass a bill that would criminalize homosexuality in the generally progressive state. Harvard graduate and aspiring politico Thomas M Lauderdale was among many who organized against the heinous proposition, planning a concert starring the Del Rubio Triplets (of PeeWee’s Playhouse fame) to raise funds for the opposition.
“I thought it would be great to bring them up for a week to perform,” says Lauderdale. “I needed an opening act for them, so I whipped on a cocktail dress, found a bongo player and a singer, and we performed songs like [the themes from] The Pink Panther and I Dream Of Jeannie. It was very campy.”
It was also very successful, and launched a party circuit performance schedule for the growing orchestra as it expanded its instrumental and cultural horizons.
Pink Martini’s first CD release, Sympathique, is a charming blend of cover tunes and original songs done in a relaxed, multilingual style that is both classic and cutting edge. The title tune is sung in French (it’s even been covered by Toronto chanteuse Marieve Herrington). Other tracks like “Le Soledad,” “Song Of The Black Lizard” and “Never On Sunday” are sung in Spanish, Japanese and Greek, respectively, and only add to the album’s eclectic and sophisticated feel. An eerie take on “Que Sera Sera” is downright haunting.
“The song comes from that Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Lauderdale says. “At the end of the film, Doris Day has to sing it to locate her son. I always thought of the song as much darker, so this was sort of an homage to Hitchcock and [score composer] Bernard Herrmann.”
Lauderdale drew on his classical training as a pianist to arrange most of the songs on Sympathique, though the follow-up, Hang On Little Tomato, was more of a collaborative effort.
“Everybody comes from a very different place: pop, jazz, Afro-Cuban,” he says. “That leads to a wildly diverse repertoire. It’s music of the world without being world music.”
Surprisingly, the composer/ pianist had a relatively sheltered musical childhood that focussed largely on classical influences with a few 1960s staples.
“There were five things that I grew up listening to,” says Lauderdale. “The New Christie Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Roger Miller, Ray Charles and the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar. Oh, and Ray Conniff.”
Fortunately there were other interesting events occurring in the young musician’s life to unsettle and inspire him. “My father ended up coming out of the closet after 18 years of marriage,” Lauderdale remembers. “He’s the first openly gay minister now in his denomination…. He even performed the service when my mother married her new husband.
“He’s great, and now that he’s not closeted he doesn’t have that frustrated tonality of most ministers.”
Lauderdale was 10 when his father’s story unfolded for the family. At the time, Lauderdale also knew that he himself was gay, but there was still a sense of discomfort in sharing the news with his enlightened liberal family.
“It was still difficult. I had the most supportive atmosphere — my parents were constantly trying to out me — but I felt I couldn’t be gay and go into politics.”
Running for mayor of Portland remains one of Lauderdale’s goals, though, admittedly, a distant one as he juggles touring with recording a third album and coordinating song appearances on shows like The Sopranos and The West Wing.
“Portland hadn’t become suburbanized like the rest of America,” he says, “but right now it’s starting to happen and I feel like somebody has to lead and be daring again. Everybody’s too worried about being reelected. I never actually see the mayor out in the community.
“But I decided it would be better to keep the band going and abandon the idea of running for mayor [and] listening to complaining phone calls from constituents under bad fluorescent lighting. It’s all about the lighting.”