Imagine you’re a veteran pianist and bandleader sequencing your new album. Let’s start with the French song, you might say. Then let’s go with the Portuguese number, then the one in Farsi, then the numbers in Turkish, Arabic, Armenian and Xhosa. Heck, let’s even throw in a couple in English.
How to describe Pink Martini’s come-fly-with-me style? Phrases like “international musical cocktail” are used a great deal in their concert reviews, and their Twitter bio (@PinkMartiniBand) is also apt: “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be it.”
The United Nations the band refers to isn’t really the actual UN but more of an idealized, innocent version, populated not by diplomats trying to score political points against geopolitical foes, but by people of all nations finding common ground (it’s a small world after all!). It’s an inclusive place where the foreigner isn’t a strange, scary outsider to be feared and walled off, but someone to be welcomed, listened to and learned from. Cross-cultural exchange: It’s a good thing.
Pianist and bandleader Thomas Lauderdale founded the band in 1994 in Portland, Oregon, where it remains, as an unofficial musical ambassador from the US to the wider world — as well as in the other direction, from that wider world back to the States.
Denton’s Brave Combo might come close in terms of their appetite for mixing worldbeat rhythms in a blender with a hip, cheerful citizen-of-the-world aesthetic. But while Brave Combo’s spiritual home is a polka dancehall, Pink Martini’s is more on the order of a Pan Am cocktail lounge at an international airport. They’re faithful to the source material, to a point — the main effect is stylish, and occasionally serious, fun. It’s a kind of world-music cabaret: Ravel, Brecht, old-school Afro-Cuban and Brazilian numbers, light classical, movie-soundtrack pop, and 1930s swing all have their place. Their ninth studio album, “Je dis oui!” (“I say yes”), came out last November.
“We’re excited to come back to Texas,” Lauderdale said in a recent chat from Milwaukee (Pink Martini was last in Austin in 2015 for the Austin City Limits Music Festival). “Texas is my second favorite state after Oregon. We do really well in Texas, not just in Austin; (there’s) been a long relationship with San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. A lot of the audiences there are more conservative, but one of the fascinating things about the band is there’s a wide spectrum of people in the audience. Very liberal people, very conservative, in between, and of different ages.”
Pink Martini has a 10-piece touring ensemble, led by Lauderdale and fronted by two alternating singers, China Forbes and Storm Large. How does the band carry off songs of such diverse origin?
“China sings in 25 different languages,” Lauderdale says. “She’s really fluent in French and Italian and a bit in Spanish, and (for) the rest of the languages we work with language professors, largely (from) Portland State University, which has an incredible foreign language department. China has an incredible ear, always has, and is able to replicate the grammar and structure and how each language is so different.”
Why is it so important to him to present such a crazily varied mix? “Before we even had a clue that we would ever be able to travel outside of the Portland city limits, I liked the possibility of singing in different languages,” says Lauderdale, “mostly because I’d grown up in a multicultural household and I’d admired the careers of people like Connie Francis and Nat King Cole, who recorded whole albums in different languages. Plus, I liked the atmosphere of cinema from different countries.
“We played entirely in Portland for the first three or four years of the band’s existence, and then when we released our first album there was a song that China had written in French (‘Sympathique’), and it took off in France and became a hit there, and suddenly we found ourselves going from just playing in Portland to touring France,” Lauderdale adds. “That sort of sealed the deal in terms of the global repertoire, and it became clear that it would be a great thing to be an American band, representing America, singing songs in different languages. Many French people thought we were a French band, or at least a European-based band.”
That’s because Europeans aren’t used to hearing Americans singing in any language other than English. “In the 20 years since then, I’ve been surprised that more American bands don’t make the effort to sing (in foreign languages), or even communicate between songs,” Lauderdale says. “ I went to see Beyoncé in Argentina, and she started out singing a song in Spanish but then kind of gave up halfway through. I just thought it was disappointing that she didn’t commit entirely to it.”
Lauderdale — who met Forbes when they were classmates at Harvard — has always been political, at one point harboring an ambition to become mayor of Portland , and started Pink Martini with a desire to, according to their Web bio, “provide more beautiful and inclusive musical soundtracks for political fundraisers.” At least when in bandleader role, he lets the music does the talking.
“The country is so divided, there’s so much acrimoniousness, that it would be a disaster if we were to address it night after night,” Lauderdale says. “We’re not a culture which is comfortable with addressing complicated issues and dealing with complex situations, so it’s really unfortunate. I think it’s the result of a country which has consistently cut its education programs as well as its music and arts programs, and has become kind of reduced to texting and tweeting and reality television, which I think is — not good. There’s so little empathy. I worry that we’re headed toward self-destruction, because there’s so much unwillingness to actually discuss things.”
Opening sheltered Americans’ minds to the diversity and wonder of the world seems like as good a place as any to begin to remedy that.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
Where: The Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive.