For their musical concoctions, the talented mixologists behind Pink Martini keep to the most intoxicating melodies, just the right parts of glee and longing, and always an unfailing beat. Need a taste? Angle up to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts Knight Concert Hall, where America’s biggest little orchestra, with its soul in the symphony hall and its heart in a lounge, will perform on Saturday, February 11.
Led by founder and mood-meister Thomas Lauderdale at the piano and spotlighting China Forbes on vocals, the group from Portland, Oregon, has been crossing multiple genres like musicians without borders since 1994.
Whether serving up the classics or originals in jazz, pop, and world sounds, Pink Martini has a wily way of reviving vintage tunes and burnishing newly minted songs for a pedigreed glow. Forbes and guest vocalists sing beyond its repertoire in English but also in Spanish, French, and Italian, which Lauderdale points out was not uncommon for American pop singers in the 1950s and 1960s. Add to that Japanese, Romanian, and Turkish, and if you’d like a ditty in Farsi or Croatian, why, they’ve got that, too.
Their signature song, "Sympathique," boasts lyrics en français. It was featured on the band’s first and same-named 1997 album, an equally happy home for Ravel’s “Bolero” and Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona’s “Andalucía” alongside the band’s take on “Que Será Será (‘Whatever Will Be Will Be’)” and film-noir import “Amado Mío (‘My Beloved’).” The Forbes-Lauderdale “Sympathique” landed like an anthem in France, nominated for a national award and adopted by striking workers, its Gallic nonchalance announcing a hankering to resist work and forget the world while blowing smoke rings.
The group upholds Lauderdale’s notion that Pink Martini rolls on as if the United Nations had a house band. That’s true due to their polyglot songbook and the universal equity they’ve upheld from the start. Their origin story entails a fight for civil rights in Portland when Lauderdale rustled up his first combo to entertain at progressive political events. That displayed spunk — not to mention sparkle — when he recruited the Del Rio Triplets, senior sirens at the guitar, and slipped on a cocktail dress to glamour things up.
From Austin, Texas, Forbes reflects on being on the road so much, especially from the moment pandemic conditions eased. “It’s difficult for me now that I have a 13-year-old son,” she admits, missing mothering him and the comforts of their Portland home, a quirky nest where she plays her piano and composes. “But touring is the best way to share our work. People just don’t buy that many albums anymore. And this lets us bring the fans the musical intimacy we cherish.” Even at the larger venues, the band likes to keep the groove cozy, welcoming audience participation and opening up for requests.
In her embrace of Miami, Forbes has always been game to deliver audience favorites, from the rip-roaring “Brazil” to “Hey Eugene,” its bounce drawing us in as if over a page in her diary. “I wouldn’t want not to do these,” says the singer-composer. “It would be weird to disrespect the songs and fans that way. I know when I attend a concert, that’s just how I feel.”
The current tour also includes material from recent and upcoming releases on the band’s Heinz label, including Forbes’ first solo album in 15 years. “That’s scheduled for September — good timing since it has a very autumnal feel,” notes the artist.
Among her new works, “Full Circle” offers — as a listener was moved to tell Forbes after a concert — a balm to mend any broken spirit. And “Rise,” which has been taken up by suicide-prevention networks, is a touching memorial to the late Pink Martini percussionist Derek Rieth, who made sparks fly from assorted drums, helping to stamp the band with its distinctive Latin sounds.
Now keeping the music percolating with his heat is Cuban-born Miguel Bernal, a percussionist nurtured in his island’s Afro rhythms. And Forbes affirms he can also make your heart ache crooning Lecuona’s “Yo te quiero siempre ('I’ll Keep On Loving You').” Let that be a clarion call to South Florida’s large and enthusiastic Latin music community to prepare for a rousing good time.
Bringing more Hispanic power, Mexican singer Edna Vázquez will accompany herself on the guitar. Her voice glides over notes with a viola’s plaintiveness or breaks out with a brassy roar in original songs — “Sola soy ('Alone Am I'),” for instance, is a personal cry for authenticity — and the deftly reinterpreted standards she treasures.
In her teens, Vázquez was sent by her mother to live in the United States, a move she resented at the time but now appreciates as a leap toward self-fulfillment. She carried deep within her a trove of Mexican music, the banda, norteño, and mariachi gems that have accompanied her throughout a career also open to rock, rhythm and blues, and protest songs.
What bound her to Lauderdale was a song made famous by Chavela Vargas, a rebellious icon of Mexican rancheras. "Piensa en mí ('Think of Me')" is a gut-wrenching tune Vázquez had covered and Vargas herself performed on Pink Martini's 2009 album, Splendor in the Grass (also featuring the debut of NPR's Ari Shapiro, who joins the band on their Miami gig). Having shared their musical tastes upon meeting eventually led Lauderdale to invite Vázquez to tour with Pink Martini in 2017 after he saw her with the all-women mariachis Flor de Toloache at the Latin Grammys.
"I've never felt as well-received as I have been since joining Pink Martini," says Vázquez, grateful to raise her voice in the band's full-throated toast to humanity. "My journey hasn't been easy. It's been especially tough to push back against the machismo in the industry. But I've grown with every setback. And now nothing deters me from my goal to inspire."
– Guillermo Perez, ArtburstMiami.com
Pink Martini. 8 p.m. Saturday, February 11, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $79 to $135.