With equal dashes Esquivel lounge and Martin Denny exotica, chilled on retro rocks and poured into a Camelot-era America glass, Pink Martini is the ultimate in sophisticated pop cool and classic, jazzy swing. Since 1994, this ensemble from Portland, Oregon, has traveled the world plugging into orchestras along the way. It's breathtaking. It's an elegant spectacle. It's freakin' beautiful.
It's amazing that this band isn't colossal given its worldly appeal. It sells out wherever it goes, from Japan to England to you name it. Perhaps fans are tight-lipped, wanting to keep Pink Martini all to themselves. But singer China Forbes doesn't blame it on stingy allegiance. It's not as if the band is wallowing in obscurity.
"People aren't secretive," Forbes says. "Some fans buy 10 copies of the album to give to their friends. I think we're not bigger than we are because we're just outside the mainstream music business. We don't have radio play, we don't have music videos, we don't do all of that. We're just kind of doing it our own way. It's kind of miraculous it's as big as it is actually... but it could be a lot bigger. The more people the music reaches, the better. We're playing some of the best venues in the world, so I don't know what else we can do in that regard. I don't think stadiums are where we belong."
Pink Martini leader Thomas Lauderdale initially chose the political path. The band that would be Pink Martini was a fluke.
"Thomas Lauderdale and I went to school together at Harvard," says Forbes. "He moved back home to Oregon to get into politics and formed Pink Martini to open up at a political fundraiser. Soon, Pink Martini became a local favorite in Portland. He called me and asked me to come and sing with the band."
Forbes was made for the part.
"I was majoring in studio art," she says. "Painting was my focus. Then I switched to English literature. But what I really spent my time doing was music and theater. I wasn't acknowledged for that because it's considered an extra-curricular. I spent all my time in the theater. I did like 30 productions while I was there."
According to Forbes, the band grew of its own volition.
Lauderdale "kept adding instruments," she says. The group went from a five-piece to a 12-piece. It went from playing kitschy covers like "I Dream Of Genie" and "Hernando's Hideaway" to writing original songs like "Sympathique," which was nominated for song of the year in France in 1995, or "Taya Tan," which is sung in Japanese — one of the "18 or so" languages Forbes sings in.
To call Pink Martini's songs, or the ones the band covers, "retro" would be missing the point. The sound is classic, the sound is now.
"It has to go through a vintage filter, I think," says Forbes. "A lot of songs that I write are songs that are personal, autobiographical, and kind of pop. When I write with or for Pink Martini, I sort of go into another style. But the thing with the band is it's really open. You can kind of get away with anything as long is it's arranged in the Pink Martini style."
Part of that style means plugging into orchestras wherever the band goes to amp up the lush and grandiose. But that system does have its drawbacks.
"The downside to an orchestra," Forbes says, "is that everything is organized and planned. You can't really be spontaneous or deviate from the program, and it's a little formal. We try to bring the fun to whatever venue or context we're in. When it's just the band there's a joie de vivre that can't be matched. But with an orchestra we get to play these big musical moments and that's an incredible feeling."
Pink Martini performs Friday, June 21, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre (60 Gibbs St.). Tickets cost $55-$105.