Pink Martini: SummerStage 17 July 2011

This is another situation where I was going in blind. It was my first concert of the season at SummerStage in Central Park and by the time I met rtb (an hour before the concert) the line was long and full of an eclectic bunch so I figured this would be interesting. We got seats in the audience-left bleachers and then a chatty French group of young people sat in front of us and the place became jam packed.

I knew that lead singer and co-founder China Forbes wouldn’t be there because rtb had already told me that she’s having vocal cord surgery. The Portland, Oregon band entered – leader, co-founder, and pianist Thomas Lauderdale, trombonist Robert Taylor, trumpeter Gavin Bondy, percussionists Brian Lavern Davis and Derek Rieth, drummer Martin Zarzar, upright bassist Phil Baker, vocalist and percussionist Timothy Nishimoto, violinist Nicholas Crosa, cellist Pansy Chang, and guitaritst Dan Faehnle – and launched into Ravel’s “Boléro” and I knew this was going to be a very different night.

Pink Martini takes classical songs and adds jazz or world beats or bends them into pop songs in a way similar to what the big bands of the 1940s or pop songwriters of the 1950s and 1960s did. They also sing songs from all over the world. Now I realized why the crowd was so eclectic – it reflected their music.

Pink Martini have been using several guest vocalists on this tour. First out was Storm Large, a tall blonde wearing a slinky blue dress with moves to bring you all the way there and back. She sang “Amado Mío” (from Gilda), “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” and Pink Martini’s “Splendor in the Grass.” Nishimoto came out to sing “?Dónde estás, Yolanda? and then Lauderdale and Crosa played a gorgeous version of the second movement of Mozart’s “G Major Concerto for Violin, K. 216.”

There was an instrumental and then a song that Lauderdale described as Schubert meets Gloria Gaynor in Cuba in 1952. Large sang “And Then You’re Gone” with music based on Schubert’s “Fantasie in F Minor” with an Afro-Cuban beat and lyrics hinting at “I Will Survive.” And to sing the man’s answer song they brought out NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro. This time it was Schubert with a swing beat and excuses of why the man had to go out for a while. Large and Shapiro danced during the break and there was some funny banter at the end that ended with a slap. Before the musical break Shapiro turned to the band and yelled, “Schubert!”

After the song Shapiro told the audience, “It’s okay. You’re not how I pictured you either.” Then he sang “La Soledad” with music based on Chopin’s “Nocturne.” Shapiro, who grew up wanting to be Judy Garland, got to sing the Garland part for the “Get Happy/Happy Days are Here Again” Garland/Streisand medley. Large sang the Barbra Streisand part. This was followed by another instrumental, this one featuring Taylor and Bondy.

The next guest vocalist was Lucy Woodward, who duetted back and forth with the trombone and Nishimoto on “Anna.” She and the trombone kept going back and forth on the same note and you couldn’t tell one from the other. Next was a song about a dog, “Lilly,” and Woodward sang the first verse to the most adorable puppy. Ernesto Lecuona’s “Andalucia” featured Rieth on the shekere.

Large sang a Croation song, “U plavu zoru,” (“At Blue Dawn”) that featured Chang. Shapiro came out again and told the story of Chavela Vargas recording with Pink Martini. Lauderdale wanted her to do “Pienso en mi” but Chavela told him she was 90 years old and she wasn’t going to learn any new songs. She sang “Yo te quiero siempre” instead. Shapiro sang “Pienso en mi” in his heavily accented Spanish.

Shapiro and Large then performed “Sympathique,” which was a huge hit in France and made all the French people in front of us very happy. Large had to learn all these languages for this tour in a short period of time. She said Shapiro helped her with the French and his French did sound unaccented (at least to my ears).

Large and Woodward then brought up a bunch of Turkish audience members to help with “Uska dara” (made famous by Eartha Kitt). There was a call and response that the Turkish people did pretty well but the audience pretty much sucked at. The editor of Paper Magazine Kim Hastreiter played triangle and hand cymbals. Woodward then sang “He Got Away” with the Turks provided back-up vocals in English.

Another instrumental – a very dramatic Flamenco-type number. I thought maybe it was from Carmen but now I don’t think so.

For the encore they brought out the great Joey Arias, who vamped, scatted, squeaked, tweeted, whistled, and Billie Holidayed his way through “You’ve Changed.”

Lauderdale started the music for the final song and then realized he wanted another special guest to play piano. He brought out David Lewis, who will be the music coordinator for the first gay wedding at Gracie Mansion next Sunday, to play piano for “Brazil” with Large and Woodward on vocals and the Turkish audience choir on percussion along with the other vocalists and musicians.

What an absolutely unexpectedly delightful summer evening.

By Carene Lydia Lopez