Tuesday, December 13, 2016

'Little orchestra' Pink Martini – "Je dis oui!"

Pink Martini / "Utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious."

I am not unabashed by my love of Pink Martini. The internationally acclaimed "little orchestra" from Portland, Oregon, founded by a couple of Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, mixes glamour with their style of sophisticated, easy-listening music. After all, what's not to like about vintage French and Italian pop, American swing and standards, Latin jazz with an orchestral twist or classic Hollywood film and musical soundtracks?

Since 1994, the band that the Washington Post once called "utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious," has amassed an impressive repertoire of festive songs drawn from around the globe, including many timeless classics and a few rarely heard chestnuts. Each new Pink Martini album and concert tour, I've discovered, pushes the boundaries of language and musical style.

A typical Pink Martini concert is both multilingual and multicultural, and at holiday time it's also multi-denominational. I speak from the experience of having seen the band perform a dozen times over the past decade in a variety of California settings: from a beautiful, summer outdoor evening at the Hollywood Bowl to the intimate, acoustically perfect Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. Above all, a Pink Martini show is inclusive – full of warmth and good cheer – and represents many human experiences. Through the energy and creativity of their music, Pink Martini brings joy to the world in these troubled times – something which should make all of us feel grateful and appreciative.

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale co-founded Pink Martini
with China Forbes in 1994.
"We're very much an American band," Lauderdale once said, "but we spend a lot of time abroad and therefore have the incredible diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America ... the America which remains the most heterogeneously populated county in the world ... composed of people of every country, every language, every religion."

Pink Martini has performed on concert stages and with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, as well as in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. I have seen them perform both as a little orchestra as well as in concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When his schedule allows, NPR "All Things Considered" host Ari Shapiro, also a Portland native, joins Pink Martini as a guest vocalist.

Last Wednesday, in the intimate, 842-seat Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, about an hour's drive from home, my wife and I saw our most recent Pink Martini show. It was part of a two-week California/Nevada "Holiday Spectacular" bus tour that began in San Francisco and included shows in Reno, Modesto, Escondido, Palm Desert, Santa Rosa and concluded in Palo Alto. After playing shows in North Carolina and Virginia over the weekend, the "Holiday Spectacular" tour continues in New York City and Boston this week before wrapping up with a pair of New Year's Eve shows at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

During their Palo Alto "Holiday Spectacular" show, the 12-member band delighted the audience by performing from their expansive catalog of pop, jazz, classical and holiday songs that were beautifully sung in many different tongues: German ("Ich dich liebe"), Spanish "Yo te quiero siempre"), Turkish ("Askim bahardi"), Croatian ("U plavu zoru"), Armenian ("Ov sirun sirun"), French ("Sympathique") Xhosa ("Pata Pata"), Chinese ("Congratulations – A Happy New Year Song"), Italian ("Una Notte a Napoli"), and oh yes, English, too ("Little Drummer Boy"). No matter the language, each song expressed a variety of human emotions – love, pain, joy grief – in an honest feeling.

Je dis oui! / Pink Martini's ninth album
features songs in no fewer than eight different languages.
Recently, the band's much-anticipated ninth album, Je dis oui! (I say yes), was released. It features Forbes and Storm Large sharing lead vocals, and includes Shapiro ("Finnisma Di") plus frequent collaborator Rufus Wainwright ("Blue Moon") along with the Harvey Rosencrantz Orchestra and the Pacific Youth Choir.

"To take in Je dis oui! is to experience a globetrotting victory lap across no fewer than eight different languages – English, French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish and, in a cover of Miriam Mekeba's glorious 'Pata Pata,' Xhosa – all tackled with cosmopolitan sophistication and the playfulness of pop, wrote NPR music critic Stephen Thompson in reviewing Je dis oui!

"Exploring just one language or genre, and doing a whole album like that doesn't interest me," said Lauderdale, during a recent interview with the Hartford Courant. 

Pink Martini's unique vision can be attributed to its inclusiveness of language, culture and religion, musically. The band wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome at its shows and, if they are so encouraged, to jump up and dance along with the music. And many did just that during their Palo Alto show. The evening was complete with an encore performance of the band's signature closing tune "Brazil" in which many in the audience, at Lauderdale's urging, formed a conga line that snaked its way around the stage while others danced at their seats and in the aisles.

If  you think about it, Large once said, "It's really the perfect recipe for 'Peace on Earth and Good Will' we hear about so often during the holidays, but sadly have witnessed quite the opposite in the world of late."

Pink Martini concert photos by Michael Dickens © 2016. Album photo courtesy of Pink Martini website.

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