There's no easy definition for the kind of music played by the Portland, Ore., pop-orchestra Pink Martini. It's a throwback, but not to any particular style or era. It's jazzy, but not jazz; poppy, but not pop, at least by contemporary standards. The group has performed songs in a dozen different languages from all over the world, but it's definitely not "world music." Pink Martini founder/composer/bandleader Thomas Lauderdale has identified the subtle links that connect big band music, bossa nova, pre-rock pop, show tunes, movie scores, and the American Songbook and embraced it all. "Classical, symphonic, old-fashioned pop with a bit of the United Nations thrown in," Lauderdale calls it.
"What really ties it all together is that they're beautiful melodies, which are hopefully, on a good day, unforgettable," Lauderdale says. "That idea of a beautiful melody is largely gone from our culture."
The band is often described as "campy" or "ironic," adjectives that the 41-year-old Lauderdale emphatically rejects. His enthusiasm for the kinds of music that show up on Pink Martini albums is entirely straight-faced, if a little sentimental.
"The band certainly had campy beginnings, but the music was never with a smirk, nor was it in any way exclusionary or belittling," he says. "It was meant to be earnest and optimistic and hopeful, despite the bleakness of every day."
Lauderdale, an accomplished pianist, formed the earliest incarnation of Pink Martini—Lauderdale, in a cocktail dress, accompanied by a bassist, a bongo player, and a singer—in 1994, just after he graduated from Harvard. The band's first performances were at fund-raisers for progressive political causes in Portland, but the addition of singer China Forbes, a Harvard classmate of Lauderdale's, in 1995 broadened the group's scope and ambitions. (Forbes spent most of 2011 recovering from surgery on her vocal cords. She returned to the band for its New Year's Eve shows in Los Angeles, to good reviews, and will perform on the current tour.)
By the time Pink Martini recorded its 1997 debut album, Sympathique, the roster had grown into a small orchestra, with members who have backgrounds in jazz, classical music, rock and pop, and musical theater. Since the late 1990s the band has performed with world-class symphony orchestras and collaborated with Jimmy Scott, New York drag queens, Carol Channing, and DJ Dmitri.
"I used to describe it as a great democracy, but it's really not," Lauderdale says of the complicated workings of such a large band. "I have to be kind of a dictator at times. The band shares in the profits of the album sales, we're independent, we've got our own label, and I try really hard to be open to suggestions. The band does a lot of arranging of the pieces and brings ideas, but at the end of the day I have to decide stuff. We're in our 18th year, which is kind of insane to me. Most of it has been largely the same band members through the years, with just a very few people who have come and gone, so I feel very fortunate. Some come from hardcore jazz, China's from a kind of folk-rock/pop/musical comedy background, our trombone player grew up in Illinois and studied with the Chicago Symphony brass players. Put it all together and it really does become sort of like America, a melting pot of different ideas."
Pink Martini's two most recent albums—2010's Joy to the World and last year's 1969—reined in Lauderdale's freewheeling stylistic approach. Joy was an album of holiday music; 1969, a collaboration with Japanese '60s pop star Saori Yuki, was recorded entirely in Japanese and the songs had to have some kind of connection to the year 1969.
"It was nice to have an assignment that was very specific," Lauderdale says. "It's nice to work under certain parameters."
The next album will be a distillation of the group's philosophy. Tentatively titled Get Happy, it will include a Hindi song—a first for the band—as well as a Danish song that won the 1963 Eurovision competition. It will also include a collaboration with Phyllis Diller on Charlie Chaplin's "Smile," recorded earlier this year in Los Angeles.
"I find myself more and more slightly sentimental," Lauderdale says. "It's just what I like. I like the shows that we do and the audiences that we meet, and I love being able to travel, and hopefully to be helpful to people in some small way. It's a dream job, actually."