Verve and Lilt
Bill Long 5/5/06
The Sound of Pink Martini
To a packed house last night at the Columbia Theatre for the Performing Arts in Longview, WA, and to an ever growing crescendo of enthusiasm with each tune played, Pink Martini performed their passionate, international, hopeful and amatory songs that have delighted audiences young and old. From the sizzling explosiveness of Thomas Lauderdale's performance of Lecuona's Malaguena to the pensive searching of China Forbes' rendition of Una Notte a Napoli, Pink Martini alternatively electrified, subdued and charmed us. While the remainder of this review speaks of their music, it is more concerned with understanding the style (which I call "verve and lilt") and soul of this most unique band.
Meeting Pink Martini
Unlike most people, I had the opportunity of meeting or learning personally about a few members of Pink Martini before actually hearing them play. I met them as people before I encountered them as artists. I met Thomas Lauderdale (piano) and China Forbes (vocal) at a celebrity spelling bee in Portland, OR. I was whisked away by my date to meet with them in the celeb lounge before the event because she knew them and thought it might be good for me to speak to China and Thomas about spelling (one of my loves). Thomas and China, in fact, needed no "coaching" on spelling, and Thomas actually won the contest as he delighted the crowd by his pained expressions when asking the pronouncer to repeat a word or by his being unable to sit still on stage. The first thing that comes across when you speak with China and Thomas is their intelligence. Within five seconds I knew that I was talking to people of wide-ranging minds and experience, of mental agility and quickness, of engaged and personable intellectuality. I knew immediately that their music would also reflect some of the ruminative as well as brilliant character of the their minds.
Then, a few months later, I was speaking to my Italian teacher in Salem, OR, and she casually mentioned that her son, Philip, was a musician. Pursuing the issue further, I learned her son was none other than Phil Baker, the outstanding bassist for Pink Martini. Rather than speaking with together about his prodigious musical talents (he played with Diana Ross for a decade, for example), I learned both about the artistic talent that runs in the Vedova family (Phil's mom grew up in Venice and a close relative is one of the leading Italian abstract artists of our day) and about Phil's learning Italian as an "immersion" student in Venice more than 40 years ago. From these conversations, then, I knew that Pink Martini was going to be bristling with energy and have a very thoughful dimension to its music.
Hearing and Thinking About Thomas
Pink Martini's music "works" because of the verve of Thomas Lauderdale and the lilt of China Forbes. Two images came to mind as I was mesmerized by Thomas hands on the keyboard. The first was of frolicing fish in the ocean. I imagined the white keyboard as a white-capped ocean, and saw Thomas' rising and falling hands as if they were great and small mythological creatures, leaping and plunging and diving and enjoying their marine merriment.
Thomas and the Myth of Arion
Then, on driving home after the concert I played with this mental picture a bit and realized why this image of flying fish came to me. Thomas' leaping hands reminded me of the Greek myth of Arion, who was known as the finest citharist (harp-player) and singer of his age. So broad was Arion's fame that he had attained great wealth. He traveled from his native Corinth delighting crowds and earning more fame and money. After one of his trips he hired a Corinthinan ship to take him from Sicily back to the Italian mainland. The crew of the ship, realizing that the great Arion was on board and figuring that he must have loads of money stashed in his luggage, decided to take his money and cast him overboard. Before being thrown to a certain death, however, Arion had one last request. He asked the crew to permit him to dress up in his finery and sing his most enchanting song to them. This song, known only as the "Stirring Song," was said to demand such unusual musical talent that few could reach the notes he played and sang. Most entranced by his music were not the crew, however, but the marine life. At the sound of Arion's music the dolphins began to gather and leap around the boat, trying as they could to partake of the beauty of Arion's music. Then, after he finished his piece he was thrown into the sea but the grateful dophins took him up in their backs and brought him safely to land.
Such was the image that crystallized in my mind as I listened to and reflected on Thomas' brilliant finger movements. It was almost as if his hands became for me the delighted dolphins and leaping Leviathans, signs that the creatures of the great deep wanted to join in on the scintillating excitement created by the alluring music.
One More Image
The second image in my mind as I watched Thomas' fingers was of athletes bouncing on a trampoline. I recall watching a recent Summer Olympic Games where the fairly new sport of trampolining was being shown. The athletes, before beginning their routine, must stabilize themselves in the middle of the trampoline and bounce to incredible heights of 30 or even 35 feet in order to be able to perform their tucks, spins and flips. As Thomas' hands lept from the keyboard, sometimes rising above it nearly as high as he is tall, I was transported back to pictures of Olympic athlete who used the spring of their legs and the aerodynamic skill of their arms to form a perfect line which defined their artistic excellence.
But I see I am out of room here and still haven't "finished" with my thoughts. The next essay ruminates further on the band's style.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long