PINK MARTINI at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (February 19). $25. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
At first glance, it's easy to write off Pink Martini as a fabulously campy good-time party band.
Aside from the cocktail-á-go-go name and the fact that the Portland, Oregon-based pop-tacular lounge ensemble delivers a repertoire of Ravel-meets-Doris Day technicolour jazzical fusion that could be cribbed from a Peter Sellers flick, Pink Martini's built up a reputation as an in-demand house band for swank celeb shindigs. If Sharon Stone's shakin' her tail at Cannes, or Jane Magazine needs some bossa burners for an exclusive VIP party, Pink Martini's is the first number on their speed dial.
What's peculiar about the self-described little orchestra's current status as intercontinental soundtrack to the stars is that when former child piano prodigy and Harvard grad Thomas Lauderdale first formed the band back in 1994, the ensemble performed only at funders and events for fiercely left-leaning political causes.
You've gotta wonder whether Lauderdale, who considered a career in politics before Pink Martini became his full-time job, feels strange about the shift.
"Oh no," he says breezily when I finally track him down in a Best Western in Binghamton, New York. "Our goal was always just to be fabulous and to create environments that were over-the-top, kinda like the dorm China (singer Forbes) and I lived in at Harvard, where everyone was socially aware and even if you weren't making overt political statements, people knew where you stood."
So he never, say, considered hiding a few pointed political barbs in the multilingual lyrics about sweet nothings and everlasting love that colour Pink Martini's swish tunes?
"No! That wouldn't be very much fun, cuz the music is partially about escape. The world is sad enough as it is, so we'd rather express hope and optimism and love and kindness. The fact that we're doing songs in different languages makes a statement without making it too harshly," Lauderdale insists. "I mean, everyone in the band is totally anti-Bush, but we go to small farming towns in Oregon or in the Midwest, and playing anti-Bush songs would turn them off."
He prefers to think of Pink Martini as the 2006 version of Breakfast At Tiffany's, but without the creepy racism of Mickey Rooney playing a crass Japanese stereotype. You can totally hear that on the band's first album, 1997's Sympathique. It's a film-friendly collection of swingy arrangements of retro tunes like Que Sera Sera and rejigged collisions between Chopin and loungey Latin jazz ditties.
Their most recent album, Hang On Little Tomato, which came out last year (Lauderdale says a paralyzing fear of failure delayed the process), is actually a more interesting set, featuring more original material and collaborations with folks like Japanese slide guitarist Hiroshi Wada.
Regardless of Pink Martini's persona, it's clear that personal politics inflect pretty much every aspect of Lauderdale's thought process. Adopted by a minister-turned-gardener and raised in a multicultural family in backwoods Indiana, Lauderdale channelled his experience negotiating race into a thesis on the myth of multiculturalism in post-colonial Britain. As we chat, he eagerly gloms onto the idea that his multiracial upbringing strongly influenced both Pink Martini's diverse personnel and the hybrid nature of their sound.
"Biography seeps into whatever you create. I have an obsession with American culture between 1930 and 1964, and between that, my childhood and the fact that my parents fell to the more earnest end of the 60s spectrum and only listened to things like the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, our repertoire ends up being like the United Nations meets Mary Poppins."
Pink Martini seems like Lauderdale's attempt to return to the post-second-world-war, pre-JFK assassination era, which he views as a pop cultural apex.
"If you look at, say, Life Magazines from before 1964, everything is gorgeous and bright: the ads, the fashions, the photographs. But within a year of Kennedy's death, things became completely muted. The colours are dark, the products are cheap and not built to last. If I were to go back to school, I'd do a thesis on that.
"I think the goal of living in 2006 is to restore a sense of grace and beauty to the world and to culture."