Classically-Trained Hipsters

Having an affair? Vacuuming the house? Pop in Pink Martini’s <i>Hey Eugene!</i> and press play.

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If you really want to understand Pink Martini, clues abound in their choice of musical covers. I hesitate to use the word “covers,” because the compositions this Portland-based mini orchestra chooses to play, interpret, or pay homage to, are not mere songs. They’re orchestrated movements that conjure up images of celebration, romance, and sadness.

Formally-trained pianist and Harvard grad Thomas M. Lauderdale formed Pink Martini as a quintet in 1994 to play theme parties and fundraisers for causes such as affordable housing and public broadcasting. By 1998, the group had grown it into a 12-piece ensemble featuring vocalist China Forbes. Today, they perform with symphonies worldwide and headline venues such as Carnegie Hall. They’ve been dubbed “Portland’s international ambassador of culture.”

The songs they choose to cover or interpret provide a road map for of the group’s larger-than-life—and campy—foray into what could be called “classically-trained hip.” What makes the globe-trotting ensemble interesting is not just that they are relatively young and call the über-cool Northwest home. It’s not that they found a successful way to mix French café music and samba with Cuban rumba, Latin jazz, and cinematic, film noir music. It’s their ear for the rare; their eye for the obscure.

On their latest album, Hey Eugene!, the group continues to pluck songs from dusty record crates and use those songs to create something new. The CD includes “Tea for Two,” a soft, jazzy lullaby from the 1925 musical “No, No Nanette” that features jazz legend Jimmy Scott. “Dosvedanya Mio Bambino” combines Russian and Latin influences into a whopping, chanting climax with a reference to a World War II-era German song, “The Happy Wanderer.” Whether you want it to or not, the song’s marching chorus sticks with you for days.

The subdued “Taya Tan,” sung in Japanese, is a re-working of a Saori Yuki song about wanting to be a lover’s guitar. A sultry reworking of Abdel Halim Hafez’ “Bukra wba’do” is sung entirely in Arabic. “Tempo Perdido” is a 1934 Carmen Miranda samba that Pink Martini transforms into a danceable tear-jerker.

Hey Eugene!, with its rare covers and unique collaborations with musicians, is similar to the band’s previous efforts. 2004’s multilingual Hang on Little Tomato features the song “Una Notte a Napoli,” which was written with 1970s Italian stage and television actress Alba Clemente and DJ Johnny Dynell of the New York nightclub Jackie 60. 1997’s Sympathique, which featured a rendition of the popular 1956 Jay Livingston/Ray Evans song “Que Sera Sera,” received a Song of the Year nomination for the title track. That album also earned the group a “Best New Artist” nod at France’s Victoires de la Musique Awards. The album went platinum in France and gold in Canada, Switzerland, Greece, and Turkey.

Pink Martini has made an art form out of digging through the world’s forgotten music library, while simultaneously composing rich original works. Lauderdale explains it this way: “My hope is that we’re creating exquisite musical wallpaper which can be turned up or down, and played on almost any occasion, from background music to a love affair or vacuuming around the house.”

You get the feeling that Pink Martini prides itself in its high-brow splendor, as if they’re winking at you in between choruses and loving every cheeky minute of it. They probably are, but who cares? Their music—and their globetrotting—make for a damn good time. They are the first band in a long time to give the over-used term “world music” a good name.

Pink Martini is touring worldwide to promote Hey Eugene! this summer and fall.

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