Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2010

Adam Levey

The last time American big band Pink Martini came to Japan, they were testing the waters on their own dime. Two years later, they’re getting the royal treatment in the form of an engagement at one of Tokyo’s swankiest venues.

Veterans of countless supper club and symphony hall dates in the West, Pink Martini have cultivated a fanatical audience over the last decade and a half with a repertoire that spans jazz standards, world music, pop and classical—all done with a campy sense of fun that disarms critics.

At the heart of the dozen-strong collective is the relationship between pianist and founder Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes. The two met as undergrads and were soon belting out opera arias in their dorm’s basement. “I’d wanted to meet him because I had heard about him, and he was always running around Harvard Yard in Bermuda shorts and knee socks,” recalls Forbes from her house in Portland, Oregon, where she’s juggling the phone in one hand and her one-year-old son in the other.

“I’d wanted to sing opera but hadn’t studied voice, so he asked me what I wanted to sing and got the key to the common room,” the Cambridge, Massachusetts native [full disclosure: Forbes and I grew up eating at the same pizza parlor] continues. “We went there at night and played Verdi and Puccini operas, and it was so magical, and that’s how we bonded.”

Lauderdale and Forbes went their separate ways before reuniting in 1995 when Lauderdale fired his previous singer. Forbes ultimately joined him in Portland on a permanent basis—and beginning with 1997’s million-selling Sympathique, their partnership has provided the creative fuel for a career that’s taken them from performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to having their music featured on The Sopranos.

“The fighting has stayed constant, and our musical collaboration is difficult because we’re so different,” Forbes says. “Thomas is a classical pianist and never wrote a song before. I’ve always been a songwriter, so we’re coming from opposite sides. Thomas also has a big vision and is not worried about the bottom line. I’m on the other side saying, ‘Can we afford that—isn’t it overkill?’ So I’m sort of the foil to his fantasy, and I think it’s a pretty good combination because if he were to run wild, this band wouldn’t survive. But at the same time, if I was in charge it wouldn’t be as fantastic.”

Some of that magic can be found on the pair’s latest album, Splendor in the Grass, a typically panoramic outing in several languages that runs from the playful French, pre-war flavored “Ou Est Ma Tete?” to the luscious Latin swing of “Tempo Perdido,” to a bilingual English-Italian version of “Sing,” the song popularized by The Carpenters.

Forbes explains, counter-intuitively, that it’s often easier to write in a foreign language. “English can feel very challenging because everything has already been done and we get into repetitive patterns of imagery: the stars, the moon, the clouds—how many more times can we talk about that?” she says. “But when you write in French, it forces you to think from the other side of your brain, so you tap into something else that you can’t say in English.”

The band’s multiculturalism—Forbes herself is equal parts WASP and African American—extends to the recent inclusion of a Japanese koto player, Masumi Timson. “Thomas finds people all over the world. [Masumi] teaches at a university here, and he found her at the Japan-American society or something, and she plays the koto and is this beautiful musician. So he had her come on stage, and it was so amazing to have the instrument on stage.”

In addition to enjoying a popularity that spans continents, Pink Martini also manage to rope in fans from tweens to the elderly. Lauderdale has joked that their music is intended for “cleaning, vacuuming around the house or seducing somebody’s grandmother.”

“There are so many young and old people in the audience—the music appears all over the world, and we do our best to diversify everything,” Forbes says. “The music is melodic, so it appeals to little kids and old people, and I like that people come as families.”

With the band embarking on its first real Far East swing, you can add a mass of new nationalities to those groups.

Pink Martini
American lounge jazz group. Mar 10, 7 & 9:30pm, ¥4,500-¥6,500. Billboard Live, Roppongi. Tel: 03-3405-1133.