Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist Brant Taylor likes to recall his favorite crossover moment.
For seven years, from 2002 to 2009, he toured with the band Pink Martini, the eclectic small orchestra based out of Portland, Ore. (and which will perform March 7 in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert). After one such run, he returned to Chicago to discover the CSO’s first program of the season featured Ravel’s “Bolero,” a work he had just been performing with Pink Martini. “Within 48 hours or so, I was playing these radically different versions of the same piece,” Taylor (below right) recalls with a laugh. “It was a very interesting study in contrasts that only I could appreciate.”
Pink Martini’s slinky, sexy take on Ravel’s classic comes from the musical stylings of bandleader Thomas Lauderdale, who describes PM as “a rollicking around-the-world musical adventure — if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we would be that band.” Taylor refers to him as a “musical archeologist.” While Lauderdale’s interests include new takes on old classics, he’s also on the lookout for lost songs more often than not from a foreign country.
So if you happen to be in your favorite record store and spot a man with spiky blond hair, funky glasses and a snappy bowtie, it might be Lauderdale. He “loves the adventure” of searching for unusual music in record stores and flea markets.
Lauderdale’s wide taste in music is the key to Pink Martini’s sound, which finds its inspiration from cultures around the world, and jumps among genres such as pop, jazz and classical to establish its own unique blend of music.
“I have a huge record collection, a huge CD collection, a huge 78 collection,” says Lauderdale, 43, who founded the group in 1994. “Especially when we travel to different countries, it’s kind of amazing to try to figure out what the best song is in that country for the band to record. It’s like being a detective, finding songs that have been buried and forgotten.”
Pink Martini’s latest disc, “Dream a Little Dream,” to be released March 4, stands as a testament to Lauderdale’s mission. It’s a project with Sofia, Melanie, Amanda and August von Trapp, the great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp, whose story everyone knows from the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “The Sound of Music.” The singers, ages 19-25, will appear with Pink Martini at Symphony Center.
The music on “Dream a Little Dream” ranges from the title song (a jazz standard that Pink Martini transforms with a Claire de lune opening) to ABBA’s “Fernando” (sung in Swedish, to a samba drumbeat) to In stiller nacht (an a cappella piece by Brahms).
Three other songs were written by August von Trapp; the siblings also suggested “Rwanda nziza,” the national anthem of Rwanda, and the Hebrew song “Hayaldah hachi yafa bagan,” which celebrates “the prettiest girl in kindergarten.”
“From the moment we met Thomas, we trusted his taste,” says Sofia von Trapp, 25. “He’s helped us reinvent ourselves musically with new and different material.”
Lauderdale admits he’s always been obsessed with “The Sound of Music,” so working with the von Trapps has been a dream come true and “a real adventure.” The idea was “to create an album that would be compatible with where they’ve been but also give an indication of where they might go.”
Also appearing on “Dream a Little Dream” are Wayne (“Mr. Las Vegas”) Newton and Jack Hanna on “Lonely Goatherd”; Charmian Carr on “Edelweiss,” and Irish folk titans the Chieftains on “Thunder.”
Lauderdale, who spent part of his childhood in Indiana (his parents met at Purdue University), formed Pink Martini as a way to brighten up political fund-raisers in Portland. Music had been a secondary interest until then. “I really thought I was going into politics,” says Lauderdale, who graduated with honors from Harvard University, where he studied history and literature. “I never expected to be in a band, let alone run one.”
The orchestra features 10-12 musicians and singers China Forbes and Storm Large (Forbes will perform at Symphony Center). Ten albums have been recorded, each so very different than the last. Among its many collaborators have been jazz vocalists Jimmy Scott and Michael Feinstein, musical stars Carol Channing and Jane Powell, ranchera icon Chavela Vargas, and pop troubadours Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright — and comedy legend Phyllis Diller (a trained pianist), who recorded Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” shortly before her death for Pink Martini’s “Get Happy” (2013).
“For me, Pink Martini is partially an attempt to rebuild a culture which sings and dances,” Lauderdale says. “The goal is to create a cohesive body of beautiful songs with beautiful melodies — and then it all just extends outward from there.”
And now 20 years in, fans are invested in Pink Martini’s musical journey. “They know the songs will be well done and the arrangements beautiful,” Taylor says. “Whatever adventure Pink Martini might get into musically, it’s going to be enjoyable, enriching and satisfying.”
Mary Houlihan is a locally based arts writer and reviewer.
VIDEO: Thomas Lauderdale discusses the beginnings of Pink Martini, in a clip produced by the band and posted on YouTube.