Band leader Thomas Lauderdale talks to 'The National' about the group’s eclectic nature
Pink Martini is set to shake up the Abu Dhabi Festival
Sometimes you have to do things yourself. Aggrieved by the awful bands performing at political fundraisers in his US home-city of Portland, pianist Thomas Lauderdale decided to take matters into his own hands.
With his collective Pink Martini still in its early days in 1994 and with Lauderdale still angling for a political career (later discarded), he decided to merge both worlds and get the group to play a few of these white-collared gigs.
The aim was simply to liven things up, he recalls.
“These things can get pretty dull. I was working at Portland City Hall on the civil rights ordinance for the city,” he recalls. “Part of that whole thing was these gigs and I would remember how dull the bands were, so I was thinking why don’t we get on and give it a try. The gigs were good and they were pretty campy.”
It’s wasn't the most rock’n’roll of beginnings but instructive in a way and Pink Martini went on to build close to a 25-year career by surprising and enthusing listeners with their cross-blending brand of pop music.
Concert goers will be tapping their feet and at times raising their eyebrows during Pink Martini's Abu Dhabi Festival appearance at Emirates Palace Wednesday night, as nothing is off limits for the near dozen-strong group.
All sorts of styles will be tackled ranging from funk and rock to French chansons and baroque classical music.
That freewheeling approach has resulted in a fan base as equally diverse as their music; while their independently released 1994 debut Sympathique (with its variety of covers including the film soundtrack favourite Que Sera, Sera by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and the Latin flair of Andalucía by the late Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona) was a minor hit in the US, it went on to sell over a million copies in Europe.
Over the preceding years and albums, the geographic balance was restored with full US tours now the norm in addition to jaunts to Australia, North Africa and Asia.
Lauderdale, who leads the band on keys, understands why it took some regions a while to get in on the party.
“I think it was down to understanding what it is that we do and whether we were just some fun and novelty project. I mean, like I said, what we were doing at the beginning was totally campy,” he says.
“But as we went on we became more earnest and I think you can even hear that in Sympathique. What saved it, in terms of the critics, was the musicians in the band are so good. That was tough to deny.”
Indeed, Pink Martini can mix it up with the best of them when it comes to musical chops.
Samba and Cuban rhythm expertise is provided by Brian Davis who will be manning the congas, drums and percussion, while guitarist Dan Faehnle is renowned in US jazz circles and was enlisted by singer-songwriter Dianna Krall to join her touring band for three years as part of her 2000 world tour.
Despite their pedigree, their talents pale on stage in the light of Pink Martini’s two power-house vocals - China Forbes and the magnificently named Storm Large. Both are bright and brash personalities on stage and between them they can tackle the group’s varied repertoire.
This will include some choice cuts from the group’s latest release, 2016’s Je Dis Oui, which is arguably their most expansive collection yet.
The 15 tracks here span seven languages and two centuries. There is the Portuguese stylings of Solidão and a celebratory take of late South African singer Miriam Makeba's Xhosa sung Pata Pata.
The album ends with a genteel take of Serenade by German composer Schubert.
“It is a very happy album” Lauderdale says.
“That’s probably because I have been feeling more that way than in the past and the exuberance is coming through on these songs. The album also reflects the state of mind of the band.”
With the song credits shared by all members, how does Lauderdale manage the various expectations and muses within the group?
This where his former political experience comes in to play.
“Running any kind of organisation, even if it’s a band, involves politics. So you do learn to be as diplomatic as you can in certain situations,” he says.
“I look at myself as an editor of sorts and we all work together to get the best possible work out there. I mean, there are times where I am still surprised that I am in a band and that I coming to a place like Abu Dhabi. Such thoughts had never occurred to me, I tthoughtthat I would have a career in politics so this is all a surprise. That’s why, if anything, I look at myself as a reluctant leader.”
Pink Martini performs on Wednesday at Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi. Tickets begin from Dh175 from www.abudhabifestival.ae