Pink Martini: A cosmopolitan musical cocktail in Aspen
June 25, 2010
ASPEN – At Harvard, in the late ’80s, Thomas Lauderdale was the kind of figure who made an impression on everyone. Typically dressed in navy blue Bermuda shorts and a bow tie, Lauderdale poured his boundless energy into such interests as music and politics. “He was really noticeable, busy as a bee, wearing a conspicuous outfit,” recalled China Forbes, Lauderdale’s college classmate.
Forbes eventually found that Lauderdale not only stood out from the crowd in obvious ways, but that he was a standout collaborator. Forbes at the time was a singer, who played in rock bands, and did musical theater and choir. Lauderdale encouraged her to expand into opera, and Forbes willingly gave it a go.
“He’s an enthusiastic and supportive patron of arts,” she said. “He’ll pursue any dream.”
You might say that Forbes would follow Lauderdale anywhere, and in fact, she has. As the core members of the Oregon-based jazz orchestra Pink Martini, Forbes and Lauderdale have traveled across the world; a recent tour of Asia brought them through Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. The traveling has been metaphoric as well. Pink Martini’s goal is to incorporate the musical vocabulary of numerous cultures into their playing, and Forbes has lost track of the number of languages she has sung in. A good guess is 17, and that includes numerous languages that she doesn’t speak – Spanish, Arabic and Turkish among them.
The first place Forbes needed to journey to was Portland. After college, Forbes was living in New York City, fronting a rock band called China Forbes 400. A continent away, her college buddy was on an odd mission in Oregon. The activist Lauderdale noticed that the music at political gatherings was usually bland or worse, and he wanted to do something about it. He formed a five-piece group to play a party for an organization opposing a state referendum to legally prohibit homosexuality. The music – versions of old tunes like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and “Amado Mio” – went well enough that Lauderdale, who plays bass in the group, booked some club dates under the name Pink Martini.
When Pink Martini fired its original singer, Lauderdale called on Forbes to fill in. A few years later, Forbes was persuaded to spend a December in Oregon, to play some shows and record on the first Pink Martini album, 1997’s “Sympathique.” Soon after, Forbes moved to Portland to become the full-time singer.
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“It sort of felt like a side project, but a fun expansion of what I do,” said Forbes, who performs with Pink Martini in the group’s Jazz Aspen Snowmass debut, Sunday, June 27, at the June Festival. “It was an adventure, being with this completely different set of instruments. I felt like an actress, playing different roles, because the music was so diverse.”
As the group has expanded, it has become increasingly diverse. All of the dozen or so members are American, but as a whole, they have a cosmopolitan outlook. One drummer grew up in Peru; a violinist has Argentinean parents. They are into travel, having performed across Europe, the Middle East and Australia, and Forbes, who speaks French, studied Italian at Harvard, and recently began singing some in Mandarin, refers to the band as “musical ambassadors, bringing an inclusiveness to everything we play.”
Forbes says Pink Martini’s globetrotting nature is a more comfortable fit than the singer-songwriter stuff she performed as a younger musician. “I was drawn to folk-rock, but that was a small box,” she said. “Pink Martini was this exploding range, and I could use the better sides of my voice. Pink Martini is a big box.”