Pink Martini has been dubbed "the world's most popular band you've never heard of," according to CBS News Sunday Morning. The word must be getting out to Utahns, though, because the reserved section at Deer Valley's amphitheater is sold out for the group's concert with the Utah Symphony on Saturday, although lawn seating is still available.
Pink Martini is a band that defies convention and description, but let's try. The group plays a worldly blend of jazz, classical and pre-1970s pop music.
And it's big: a mini-orchestra of 12 musicians, including a harpist, cellist, guitarist and trombonist in the mix. Founder Thomas Lauderdale plays a grand piano. Like several others in the group, he is classically trained.
"Thomas is a dreamy person, and he has a dream of orchestrating in a lush way," said China Forbes, Pink Martini's lead singer. "He doesn't believe in synthesizers. He has to have all these instruments. Some of the musicians are from orchestras, some have jazz backgrounds. They're all very different from one another, and that brings a really interesting sound to the group."
The group's style, which Lauderdale has described as "old-fashioned symphonic global pop," appeals to a multigenerational, multiethnic array of listeners who probably wouldn't ordinarily be found in the same room.
Since his college days, Lauderdale has been known for throwing a great party, and that spirit find its way into the atmosphere of Pink Martini's concerts. "When Thomas has a party, he invites everyone in town," Forbes said. "He likes festivity, community, people singing together and dancing together."
Lauderdale's inclusiveness shows up in the group's repertoire, which draws on cultures around the world and continues to expand as the group tours the planet.
"We learn a song in the language of wherever we're going, so we can communicate directly to our fans," Forbes said. "I've learned to sing in over 15 languages. Going to a Pink Martini concert is a trip around the world for the price of a concert ticket."
Forbes and Lauderdale met as students at Harvard, where they lived in the same dorm as sophomores. She was studying art, and acting and singing on the side. He studied history and literature, and threw elaborate parties.
When Lauderdale volunteered to accompany Forbes for some opera arias, the two ended up singing show tunes and pop music, too, including a crazy, up-tempo version of "The Way We Were."
"We would go into the common room of the dorm late at night where there was a grand piano, and we bonded over that," Forbes said. "We had a campy sensibility in common."
Years later, when Forbes was singing with a band in New York City, Lauderdale asked her to come out to Portland for a Pink Martini performance because he had fired his lead singer. "I got roped in and never could extricate myself," Forbes said. "I moved to Portland and have lived here ever since."
Forbes and Lauderdale co-write many of Pink Martini's original songs. She rejoined the band recently after taking a year off for vocal surgery. She said she'll likely sing in Romanian and Turkish at the Utah concert, and definitely in Japanese; the group's latest recording features Japanese pop hits of the 1960s.
Like the rest of Pink Martini's gigantic song list, those tunes benefit from Lauderdale's gifts as an arranger and the top-notch musicianship of the band's members. The group has performed with the Utah Symphony before, at Salt Lake City's Abravanel Hall, and counts members of the orchestra among its fans.
"It's a very sophisticated form of popular music," said Utah Symphony principal trombone Larry Zalkind. "To a classical musician like me, it's uplifting to see that a group like that can be so popular. It's not simplistic, but very sophisticated in the music and the quality of performance. I like that. It kind of gives everything hope."
Zalkind knows Pink Martini's trombonist Robert Taylor, a member of the Oregon Symphony. The two talked after the previous Utah concert, in which Taylor played a pop version of Ravel's "Bolero," including its scary trombone solo. "He was joking that he has to stand in front of orchestra musicians and play that solo from 'Bolero,' " Zalkind said with a laugh. "Playing in a pop group is supposed to be easier. It just underscores how good these players have to be. They have to be very versatile to play all the styles the group performs."
Over its lifetime, the band has become something like the house band of Portland. Given the group's penchant for playing a bit of everything from a bit of everywhere, Pink Martini could be called the house band for the United Nations.
Pink Martini shakes things up
The Utah Symphony performs with the eclectic pop band Pink Martini to close the Deer Valley Music Festival. Jerry Steichen conducts.
When • Saturday, Aug. 11, at 7:30 p.m. at the Deer Valley Snow Park Outdoor Amphitheater, 2250 Deer Valley Drive South, Park City
Tickets • Reserved seating is sold out; $37 for lawn seating at 801-533-NOTE or http://www.deervalleymusicfestival.org. Ticket prices increase by $5 on performance day.