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'Hang On Little Tomato' is the band's second CD
Dreaming of a Pink Martini Christmas
by Mark Anderson

espite what we'd like to believe, the holidays are often less than happy and more about survival. Yet sometimes something unforeseen happens and we're sustained with abundant memories for years to come.

Portland's lively musical signature: Thomas Lauderdale and China Forbes planted Pink Martini's seeds in 1988. ["P.M.," by Mary Bergherr]

I'm dreaming of a Pink Martini Christmas, just like the one seven years ago.

That year, 1997, was when Pink Martini did all my shopping. Everybody on my list – mom, dad, relatives, co-workers and friends – got Sympathique, the Portland band's first album.

It was newly released and selling for ten bucks at Everyday Music on Sandy Boulevard. I strolled in, spotted it on display and took one home. The next day I went back for a dozen more.

A few days later I landed in Minnesota and Pink Martini parties began breaking out all around me.

Sympathique has gone on to sell upwards of 650,000 copies around the world and it still sounds flawless – an exotic, elegant, play-it-again party.

That '97 holiday came to mind with the recent release of the band's long-delayed second album, Hang On Little Tomato. And while seven years is forever in show business, neither of the Pink Martini albums happened overnight.

It was back in 1988, according to local lore, when Thomas Lauderdale, a piano-playing former student-body president from Portland's Grant High, forged a musical bond while attending Harvard with a theatrical, operatic East Coast housemate named China Forbes.

Lauderdale returned to Portland and put together Pink Martini in '94 as a fund-raising one-off project. Instead, the band caught on. Forbes came aboard a few years later. Then, in '97, out came Sympathique. Now in their second decade as Pink Martini, Lauderdale, Forbes and a liquid lineup of classically trained bandmates have become Portland's graceful, lively musical signature.

The band's sound fuses jazz, classical, pop, Latin and fun. Lauderdale works the grand piano while a dozen others brandish varying combinations of trumpets, trombones, violins, cellos, bass, guitar and percussion. Songs are sung in a wide variety of languages and Forbes's singing is pleasingly uncomplicated. Things start somewhere near the 1920s and cut a wide swath through to today.

And, as good as the recorded versions are, a Pink Martini concert often displays the band at its best. Whether touring the states and sharing stages with civic orchestras or working their way around the world as a self-contained unit, the band's live show gives off a sound that wraps around you and lends the recordings an added mystique.

Sympathique can still be heard in movies and on TV and is probably more popular in Europe than at home. The album brightens a background or fills up a room, stands up to microscopic inspection and promotes repeated play. Throughout its seven-year run in Portland, Sympathique has gone from cutting-edge cool, to unavoidable soundtrack in local restaurants and shops, to passé, then back again to cool.

Father and son: up top is said to be Pink Martini's founder. (Try the Web site.)

The new album, Hang On Little Tomato, is also very good.

Lauderdale, Forbes and various co-conspirators wrote 75 percent of the new material (on Sympathique, 75 percent was other people's songs). And, to the band's everlasting credit, those new compositions are timeless, sophisticated and accomplished.

Still, while "U Plavu Zoru" is a standout, little else approaches the rarefied heights of the first album. Sad to say, Hang On Little Tomato seems doomed to be forever linked with phrases such as "... but it's not as good as Sympathique."

Lauderdale has told local media that Little Tomato had been completed and scrapped more than once; that the notion of a follow-up to Sympathique was incredibly difficult; that the next two albums – the third more poppy and the fourth more symphonic – are already fairly far along.

So instead of more damning faint praise for Little Tomato, let's try a metaphor. Imagine the Red Sox winning next year's World Series. That would certainly be interesting and exciting and probably even fun – especially for the people of Boston. But it could never approach the earthshaking drama of this year's model.

Pink Martini's first album has sold upwards of 650,000 copies since 1997.

Now, as shopping days dwindle, my advice is pretty simple: If you've never heard Pink Martini, get Sympathique. If you've heard it and read this far, try Hang On Little Tomato. And either way, you can't go wrong with both.

Because no matter who you are or where you live, you've got an aunt or a cousin or a boss or a spouse or a friend who's nearly impossible to please. Once the wrapping comes off, you never know what might happen.

Have yourself a Pink Martini Christmas. May this be the year where everybody says, "Hey, thanks for the gift" and means it.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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