Music News & Reviews

This 'Martini' is anything but straight up

Describing the music of Pink Martini in any succinct fashion is like undertaking a global tour on a single evening: so many sounds and destinations, so little time.

Let's use Pink Martini's 2010 holiday recording, Joy to the World, as the point of departure. Its repertoire covers Ukrainian bell carols, Cold War-era American orchestral pop and a dash of Italian operatic splendor. Even the album's most familiar tune, White Christmas, is presented twice — once in English sung by longstanding Pink Martini vocalist China Forbes and again in Japanese with the oft-dubbed "Barbra Streisand of Japan," Saori Yuki.

But that level of musical globetrotting doesn't begin to describe the actual performance design of Pink Martini, a self-described "little orchestra" that blends grandiose pop elegance with a hint of lounge-savvy kitsch (as shown by the 2007 hit Hey Eugene!).

So how did Pink Martini manage the artistic schooling, technical command and performance smarts to pull off a musical montage where all the world is, indeed, a stage?

For Pink Martini co-founder, pianist and occasional songsmith Thomas Lauderdale, the journey began in an unexpected cultural metropolis: Indiana.

"That's where I grew up," said Lauderdale, who will perform with Pink Martini in a concert Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts that will include the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra and numerous guests. "My parents came from what you might call the earnest side of the '60s.

"My childhood soundtrack consisted of Ray Conniff, Ray Charles, Roger Miller, the New Christy Minstrels, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Jesus Christ Superstar. That sort of set everything up."

So began the cultural voyage that became, in 1994, Pink Martini. Curiously, the global reach of the ensemble's vintage pop repertoire was nurtured in very modest and unexpected settings: record stores.

"The thing is, I go to record shops around the world," Lauderdale said. "That's how I find a lot of great music. That's how I discovered Saori Yuki. I found her debut album in a Portland record store."

That unlikely introduction was something of an artistic windfall for Lauderdale. Pink Martini wound up covering Yuki's Taya Tan, which led to the White Christmas recording. Last month, Yuki and Pink Martini released a full collaborative album, 1969. It covers hits that broke out around the world that year. As such, there are tunes sung in Japanese, French and English and music that shifts from Asian melodies to Brazilian bossa nova.

"So had I not gone to that record store and purchased that album, we would not have made 1969."

Yuki will be joining Pink Martini for its current tour, but not until after the Lexington concert. Still, the Singletary show will sport several key guests.

In purely musical terms, the group will be teaming with the UK Symphony and conductor John Nardolillo. An orchestra collaborating with a pop artist is nothing new. But what happens when that artist turns out to be, in effect, another orchestra?

"It's sort of like taking the band and making it 100 times more Hollywood," Lauderdale said. "But more Hollywood in a 1940s kind of way. It heightens the romance. More strings, more players, bigger sound — but it's still romantic and global at the same time."

Nardolillo said, "The music Pink Martini plays is just spectacular. It's so eclectic. One of the reasons it works so well with an orchestra is that the group is so interested in the roots of the music.

"They're looking through old film scores from the '40s and old big band charts. They're playing works from a real golden age of popular music. It's marvelous stuff that we don't have the opportunity to perform very much."

Also with Pink Martini will be fellow Portland, Ore., artist Storm Large, known to many in the pop mainstream for her appearances several years ago on the TV reality/talent show Rock Star: Supernova. Large's workload for Pink Martini over the past six months has been considerable. She was enlisted as a substitute for China Forbes, who underwent vocal chord surgery earlier this year.

"She's incredible," Lauderdale said. "And very smart. She studies very, very hard. She took classes so she could sing our French songs. By the end of two weeks, she was conjugating and joking in French. That's how smart she is."

Completing the Pink Martini guest list will be Ari Shapiro, known more his on-air work as NPR's White House correspondent than as a vocalist.

"I can't discern that Ari has any faults whatsoever, so we're thrilled he has joined our little troupe," Lauderdale said.

Why so many collaborative pals? Because their input works, Lauderdale said. And that along with Pink Martini's overall popularity, surprises him as much as anyone.

"I am constantly surprised that any of this possibly works. It just doesn't seem like it should. It seems so implausible and impossible and so removed from most modern pop culture in America. But it is fascinating."

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