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Photograph by Adam Levery
Cosmo: Harvard-educated chanteuse China Forbes leads the Pink Martini band on a musical tour of the globe

Think Pink

Pink Martini comes to the Rio on the 12th

By Andrew Gilbert

With its lush, cinematic sensibility, the 12-piece band Pink Martini has a way of turning each concert into the musical equivalent of a film festival, complete with the need for subtitles.

The Portland phenomenon has won a huge international following with its idiosyncratic repertoire of original songs and pop obscurities in more a dozen languages, from French, Portuguese and Spanish to Arabic, Japanese and Croatian. Featuring a string and brass section and four percussionists, the ensemble crafts intricate arrangements that provide evocative settings in which China Forbes, the band's deliciously polyglot vocalist, is free to roam. Drawing on a myriad of styles as diverse in origins as their lyrics, the band has forged a singular pop sound that's as inviting as it is uncannily timeless.

"I grew up loving the visuals of Hollywood film from the 1940s and '50s, and in many ways the repertoire is a cross between a musical and the United Nations," says pianist/arranger Thomas Lauderdale, the band's founder and artistic director. "We're inspired by an almost old-fashioned romance and sweep that's pre-1964. The challenge is to earnestly find the happiness and joy on the surface of the music, while understanding how complex life is in 2007."

In many ways, Lauderdale's mission statement is a perfect description of the music of vocalist Jimmy Scott, so it's not surprising that the 82-year-old jazz legend is featured on Pink Martini's latest album, Hey Eugene! Though his voice has been ravaged by time, Scott is still a haunting singer, and he joins Forbes for a delicate dance through "Tea for Two" that transforms the 1925 ditty into an aching portrait of a romantic idyll.

"He's had an unbelievable life," Lauderdale says. "I found him out of the phone book, living in Euclid, Ohio. I called him up and asked him to come to Portland to play with our band, and he did."

It was Lauderdale's commitment to creating a better world that led to the creation of Pink Martini. A classically trained pianist, he founded the band in 1994 to play political fundraisers for various progressive causes in Portland. It started as a quartet, but before long it had expanded to a dozen members. The concept first gained traction while Lauderdale was studying history and literature at Harvard University, where he met Forbes, a student of painting, English literature and theater. They often spent their nights making music together, with Forbes singing Verdi and Puccini arias to Lauderdale's accompaniment.

They each went their separate ways after graduating from Harvard cum laude, with Forbes settling in New York City, where she performed in theater and in rock clubs as a singer/songwriter. When Lauderdale called to recruit her for Pink Martini, she relocated to Portland. It was 1998.Rekindling the creative synergy they had forged at Harvard, they started writing songs together, and their first effort, the slacker anthem "Je ne veux pas travailler" ("I Don't Want to Work"), became a hit in France. But despite Pink Martini's internationalist perspective, it's very much a product of the Portland scene.

"It's a really cheap, accessible, affordable artistic town," Lauderdale says. "You don't go broke having to support yourself. Last year everybody in the band bought homes here! The delightful thing is it's a small little hamlet, a liberal Mayberry. It's down to earth and not really trying very hard. Seattle's trying really hard to be cosmopolitan. I think L.A. is only good if you don't want anything, and San Francisco is too beautiful and expensive. If we were in New York City, we couldn't function because we'd all be in nine different bands just to make ends meet."

Pink Martini struck pay dirt with its first album, 1997's Sympathique, which went gold in Canada, Switzerland, Greece and Turkey and has sold more than 750,000 copies. It took seven years to release a follow-up, 2004's Hang on Little Tomato, a worthy sophomore effort that cemented the band's global sensibility. International touring was partly responsible for the delay, but it was also the inherent difficulty of trying to coax a second lightening strike.

"I dreaded going back into the studio," Lauderdale says. "There's something delightful about working on a first album. You don't know enough to be scared. I had my whole lifetime to think about it. How to follow up and not end up with disappointment?"

Judging by the response to Hey Eugene!, Pink Martini has mastered the art of serving up another round.

PINK MARTINI plays Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35 adv/$47 door; 831.421.9200.

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