- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

If you want to play the cosmopolitan cynic, Pink Martini, which packed the 9:30 Club Monday evening, is probably the best celebrity wedding band on the planet — or the music of choice for first-class intercontinental travelers.

The 12-piece unit hit the 1930s Cuba button, the early swing button; it threw in a taste of Japan and an echo of Napoli. It expertly provided a soothing polyglot confection. That would pretty much be the extent of the backhanded compliments.

The rest is all good, and even the quibbles are complicated. Pink Martini definitely is an original force in contemporary music even as it basks in eclectic nostalgia. It also bridges, better than any band in recent memory, the high-brow/pop-culture divide.

Of course, in the very unlikely event that you were raised on a worldly diet of Edith Piaf, Ruben Gonzalez or Django Reinhardt (or have been exposed to modernized versions like Paris Combo and Paolo Conte), you might find something forced or academically precious in Pink Martini’s archaeological experiment.

It is arguable, for example, whether songs such as “Kikuchiyo To Mohshimasu” or “U Plavu Zoru,” which were sung in the original Japanese and Croatian, respectively, add anything more than multicultural showiness — native instruments included — to an already ambitious program.

However, the band has at least two great saving graces. One is lead singer China Forbes. Depending on the song Monday night, she was a regal diva, a nocturnal temptress or, as in one transfixing Hollywood moment during the ballad “Clementine,” a beautiful young momma lulling her babies to sleep. The audience shushed and melted in her palm. On more up-tempo numbers like “Brazil,” her voice pierced through the busy Latin rhythms with a zestful clarity that would make Maria Theresa Vera proud.

The other grace is band founder and pianist Thomas Lauderdale. With platinum spiked hair and a boyish intensity, he led his elaborate musical arrangements with virtuosic bravado. He also proved to be a generous and democratic boss, allotting plenty of solo space for the fine instrumentalists, especially the trumpet. It’s safe to say that he has the dream job of any pianist — to play your own compositions before a popular audience without hiding your classical training.

A number titled “Concerto for Trumpet” blended in almost seamlessly with the more sensual fare. Almost, because Pink Martini is almost two separate bands. One is a highly entertaining retro show band fronted by a magnetic leading lady. The second is a highly accomplished modern classical “small orchestra” led by a true intellectual force. When the two jell in one number, it’s something special. The instrumental numbers, on the other hand, can get bogged down in their own gravitas, dragging on the program. Then again, that’s a critic’s quibble, and the audience didn’t seem to mind.

They blew kisses, through two encores, till the very end.


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