BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
It's always kind of a parlor game to come up with a description of Pink Martini's music. Lounge music, cafe music, post-modern classical, swing, crossover — you name it and the label has been applied to the band from Portland, Ore., which has a concert tonight at the Straz Center in Tampa.
"Lately I'm describing it as old-fashioned symphonic global pop," said Thomas Lauderdale, the bandleader, pianist and founder of Pink Martini, which is touring with 11 players. "It's symphonic in the sense that it's classical in approach, old-fashioned in the sense that it's 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s pop music, and global because it's from around the world."
Take the group's program tonight. It's likely to be a wildly eclectic mix ranging from the Latin love song Amado Mio to a classical violin showpiece by Sarasate to Tuca Tuca in Italian to fan favorite Hey Eugene.
It all started, as Lauderdale tells the story, in 1994 when he was involved in politics in Portland, his hometown, and formed a band to play at fundraisers.
"The idea was to create a band that could play at political functions and would have a broad appeal so it would appeal to conservative people, liberal people, older people, younger people, Democrats and Republicans," he said by phone from Savannah, Ga., where the band was in a festival last week. "It was kind of like an attempt to be a melting pot and to create an atmosphere where people who didn't agree politically could sit together and have a good time."
Among Lauderdale's influences were "older Afro-Cuban bands like Perez Prado and Tito Puente, more old-fashioned than contemporary salsa, which is almost like modern jazz meets salsa," he said. "I was looking for more of a '50s kind of vibe."
China Forbes, the group's longtime singer who got to be friends with Lauderdale when both were undergrads at Harvard, is back and slated to perform in Tampa tonight. She was off stage for most of 2011 because of surgery on her vocal cords.
"China is in exceptional form these days," Lauderdale said. "Her recovery has been total, which is a great relief to her and our audiences."
In 2006, Pink Martini and Forbes made their first Tampa Bay area appearance, playing three concerts with the Florida Orchestra on a pops program, one of the best the orchestra has ever done.
When Forbes was not singing much, the band performed with other singers, including one collaboration that led to its newest album, the wonderfully odd and addictive 1969, with Japanese singer Saori Yuki, who is sometimes called the "Barbra Streisand of Japan." Initiated by a record company in Japan, the concept was to give the Pink Martini treatment to Japanese pop hits from 1969, when Yuki made her debut.
"I listened to the demos but didn't really like most of the songs they selected, so I found some better songs from Japanese 1969 catalogs and then also encouraged them to think broader," said Lauderdale, producer of the album. "So we ended up doing Is That All There Is? in Japanese for the first time, Mas Que Nada in Japanese, Puff the Magic Dragon in Japanese. It's one of my all-time favorite albums that we've done."
1969, which came out last fall, has been a smash, selling more than 250,000 units in Japan. It was the first time a Japanese pop artist made the Billboard charts since the 1963 single Sukiyaki by Kyu Sakamoto.
All eight Pink Martini albums are on the band's own Heinz Records label (named for Lauderdale's dog) in the United States and sold on its website (pinkmartini.com). "It's much better to have our own record label," Lauderdale said. "It's the difference between making like 50 cents a record if we were on some other label and making $6 a record on our own label. We have a profit-sharing arrangement with the band so that everybody participates in profits from record sales. The best-selling album is still our first, Sympathique, but at the end of the day, Joy to the World, the holiday album, will be the most successful."
And the search for fresh, unusual music for Pink Martini is never ending. "I've started thinking about what the repertoire is going to be for the next album," Lauderdale said. "I've found a great song in Hindi, a Danish song that won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1963, an Italian song from the '50s. We're about to embark on a Turkish song that a linguistics professor from Tucson suggested. We're going to learn it before our Turkish tour in July. It's always an adventure."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.