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Pink Martini: Over the Valley

Yes it's true, says Thomas Lauderdale, he was deeply involved in politics in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon and had worked in a number of civic positions.

“I would love at some point to run for mayor. I'd have to write the tell-all book before I do of course,” laughs this man who knows all the drag clubs, strip joints and high camp hangouts around town.

“I love this city and in fact the band was formed to play at political fundraisers.”

That band is Pink Martini, an ensemble which Lauderdale founded 16 years ago and which plays . . .

Better to let him describe the chic, stylish and often very witty music of Pink Martini which, logic might tell us, has no place in the hard-edged 21st century.

“The music is old fashioned but put together in a new way, and I think people are starved of beautiful melodies. But the diversity of styles and languages we have offers this feeling of a 1940s Hollywood orchestra and a Havana nightclub in 1960. It is irresistible, people come with their grandparents and children.

“It's not too loud but it is festive, it's an around the world adventure without leaving home.”

Over four albums, Pink Martini have crafted stylish romantic music which references the classic sound of Hollywood spectaculars, gentle swing jazz, Doris Day pop (“she was extraordinary, if only we could lure her from retirement”), Spanish melodrama and French sophistication.china

With singer China Forbes out front and the bow-tie wearing Lauderdale as band-leader/pianist, Pink Martini conjure up the days of PanAm Clippers, palm trees in pots, and Greta Garbo coming down the sweeping staircase of a swanky hotel to meet Clark Gable.

This may seem a music of escapism, but it is also shot through with wicked wit (the cross-dressing Bitty Boppy Betty appears on their most recent album Splendor in the Grass) and deft orchestration.

According to the band's website citing an article in the LA Times, in 07 the new president of the United Nations General Assembly Srgjan Kerim ordered 30 copies of the band's album Hang on Little Tomato to give away to members at the first meeting he chaired.

It is beguiling music, more so perhaps because it comes from Lauderdale who was of the political persuasion and grew up with his adoptive parents in Indiana.

“So no, I didn't grow up with Hollywood musicals. My parents were on the earnest side of the 60s and they listened to the New Christie Minstrels, Roger Miller and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir . . . but all those artists have beautiful melodies.

“In terms of the Hollywood stuff, I think that was my own aging kicking in and loving the spectacle of Rogers and Hammerstein, and the Busby Berkeley musicals. They are so beautifully shot and well thought through, the songs are fantastic and the dancing is gorgeous. There is a style and ability felt by anybody watching.”

Yet Pink Martini – for all that they sometimes write songs which sound instantly familiar or are like lost classics from the middle of last century – are not a revivalist or retro act. Their music is sharp and contemporary in its sly humour and lavish presentation.

“That's the challenge for us, to not slide into parody or worse. The goal is to be modern in the way we put things together but also respectful of a tradition. It also has to be accessible so people can feel like they are part of it and not outside of what we do.”

A song like the Lauderdale-Forbes composition Over the Valley on their new album for example seems instantly recognisable so there is the inviting comfort of the familiar.

“The more we play that, the more we love it. It has that same feeling – but is not nearly as fantastic – as Over the Rainbow. China and I love the songwriting of the 30s and 40s, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.”pinks

Pink Martini music may be exquisitely crafted but you don't see the craftsmanship, and Lauderdale says it is important they continue to collaborate widely with other musicians to keep exploring ideas. Recently they played three nights at the Hollywood Bowl with Rufus Wainwright; they have performed with the Portland Symphony; and the new album features Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the rock band the Dandy Warhols as well as 90-year old Mexican singer Chavela Vargas.

They also have many songs in French, Italian and Spanish. Lauderdale notes that in 25 years Spanish will be the most widely spoken language in the United States, “and it is a much more beautiful language than English anyway, everything will hopefully be one touch more sexy.”

Behind the sophistication and glamour however a political heart still beats: Pink Martini is a platform to support the liberal causes they feel deeply about (they have just played a fund-raiser for a school music department) and Lauderdale laughs about their happy obligation to “keep electing democrats into the White House”.

The George W. Bush years were actually good for them: “It was an amazing way to active a sleepy population and force those of us who disagreed to stand up and be counted.”

Politics with a charming soundtrack? What an interesting mayoral candidate Lauderdale would make.

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