To get a sense of what a Pink Martini performance might be like if you’ve never seen the band in action, simply refer to this statement by the group’s founder and vibe-setting pianist Thomas Lauderdale: “The goal of any of our concerts is to make sure there’s a conga line by the end.”
Known for its lively concerts featuring multiple musical genres and languages (pop and Latin, French and Spanish, to name just a couple in each category), the 12-member ensemble tours globally playing some of the world’s most renowned venues: Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, the Hollywood Bowl and Chicago’s own Symphony Center, where Pink Martini will bring its utterly unique brand of musical and theatrical inventiveness for an SCP Special Concert on March 16.
As ever, Lauderdale and his cohorts — including one of the group’s two singers, China Forbes, and guest vocalist/Chicago-based fashion designer Ikram Goldman — will do their best to throw a memorable bash.
“It’s part circus and community sing-along,” says Lauderdale, an Indiana native and longtime Portland, Ore., resident who has an affinity for variety shows ranging from “The Muppets” to “Laugh-In” to Judy Garland’s short-lived 1960s TV series.
“I like a wide scope of things,” says Lauderdale, a Harvard grad. “That’s why I chose not to go to a music conservatory. I didn’t want to be limited to studying just classical piano and being holed up in a practice room. I wanted to study history and literature and politics and art and foreign languages. So [the group] is a reflection of my own goals for my own life.”
During the band’s upcoming Chicago visit, Pink Martini will occupy the stage alone. That is to say, without symphonic enhancement. Over the years, the group has performed its ever-growing repertoire of originals and interpretations with more than 50 orchestras, including Chicago’s, and Lauderdale isn’t afraid to play favorites.
“The Chicago Symphony is the best orchestra in the country that we’ve played with,” he says, unprompted. “They’re better than Los Angeles. They’re better than Cleveland. They’re better than all of them. It’s just a wall of sound, the players are super smart, and they seem to be relatively happy. Most orchestras aren’t that happy. Chicago seems to be pretty pleased. At least that’s been my experience.”
With or without such world-class bolstering, Pink Martini strives always for energetic eclecticism. And while the band’s dedication to that goal hasn’t waned, Lauderdale says the pace and over-the-top visuals have been tempered. It happened naturally as the band evolved and aged.
“I started out wearing cocktail dresses and slithering around in feathers onstage and playing a lot of Mancini songs,” Lauderdale says. “I think that as the band has gotten older, we’ve slowed down a bit. The tempos aren’t nearly as fast. We used to take breakneck tempos on seemingly every song. And I think there’s been sort of a growing calmness in the band. It feels that way, at least.”
Calmness, though, does not equal complacency — far from it. The members might be more mature and less campy than they once were — “Dresses are certainly fabulous,” Lauderdale says of his early concertwear, “but heels are very tough night after night” — but Pink Martini still jams like nobody’s business.
And if, in the end, you’re inspired to shake your body, baby, do that conga, they’ll no doubt be very pleased.
Mike Thomas, a Chicago-based writer, is the author of the books You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman and Second City Unscripted: Revolution and Revelation at the World-Famous Comedy Theater.