I’m not ashamed to say that I first found about the music of Pink Martini when a song of theirs was featured in a Citroën car advert. The song was Sympathique:
Je ne veux pas travailler
Je ne veux pas déjeuner
Je veux seulement oublier
Et puis, je fume
A rough translation in English: “I don’t wanna work, I don’t wanna eat, I just wanna forget. So I’m havin’ a fag.” Not exactly the typical backdrop to a car advert, but it was enough for more to seek out the band’s first album (also titled Sympathique) – and my love affair with Thomas Lauderdale’s band and China Forbes’s vocals had begun.
For those who don’t know Pink Martini, they are a twelve-piece jazz orchestra which appropriates songs and styles from all over the world. As I described to The Prompt blog back in June:
I suppose you might classify them as light jazz, but they absorb influences from around the world like musical magpies – you never know whether their next track is a Japanese folk song, a twisted take on the great American songbook or inspired by a traditional Hebrew prayer. They’re constantly surprising and I can’t wait to see them live at the Royal Albert Hall in October.
Well, October is here, and last night I got my first taste of Pink Martini live – in the Royal Albert Hall, backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra.
And now I can’t wait to see them again.
One potential disappointment for me was that one vital component of the Pink Martini sound was missing. China Forbes, the woman whose voice did so much to attract me to the band in the first place, is on a leave of absence to have an operation on her vocal cords.
In her place, though, came Storm Large. The bizarrely named blonde bombshell soon showed that she had the sort of self-deprecating joie de vivre that fits in so well with Pink Martini’s exuberant attitude. Her line in inter-song banter was effortlessly joyful (in contrast to Lauderdale’s, which was enjoyable because it was so shambolic, the man clearly non-plussed by the experience of playing in the Albert Hall). And while I would of course still love to hear Forbes deliver some of the band’s choicest numbers, having a different vocalist flipped some of the numbers into new and exciting areas of music, just as the great jazz performances are wont to do.
Forbes’s absence also allowed space for a special guest – Japanese songstress Saori Yuki, whom Lauderdale described as “a Japanese Barbra Streisand”. Which I thought was unfair, as she seemed to be personable, humble and not a bit precious. Lauderdale’s relationship with Yuki started after Pink Martini covered one of her songs, Taya Tan, on the album Hey Eugene!, and he has recently worked on a whole album with her. The emphasis on so many Yuki-fronted numbers could have tipped the show away from being a Pink Martini concert, but the reason they have acquired such a following is that they prove themselves effortlessly adaptable – and so the audience for this concert was, too.
The biggest and best reactions came for Pink Martini’s most well-known numbers, of course. And some illustration of how some of the numbers came about was a delight as well – I had never realised that And Then You’re Gone was based upon a Schubert piano melody, allied with the string riff from Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive and given a Cuban twist (the companion piece, But Now I’m Back, uses the same Schubert piece as a starting point but turns it into a much more American swing style). Or that their Japanese-language version of White Christmas had involved delicate negotiations with the estate of Irving Berlin, who had previously banned translations of his songs into the language of America’s once wartime foe.
And the big numbers were, as usual, saved until the end of the night. Both Sympathique and Brazil from Pink Martini’s first album generated wild reactions from the audience (including, in the latter case, a conga line round the arena seats). But it was the encore number which made the entire evening worthwhile for me. Doris Day famously performed Que Sera Sera in the climax to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – a scene set, like last night’s concert, in the Royal Albert Hall. But while her picket-fence-and-gingham interpretation was at odds with the threatening mood of the film, Pink Martini’s is brooding, contemplative and not without a hint of menace (it’s not surprising that, when Channel 4 were advertising the first series of Desperate Housewives, they used the track in their trailers). It’s become my favourite of all Pink Martini’s songs, and there could have been no finer finale to a concert that will remain in the memory for some time to come.