Pink Martini masters mixology with the KC Symphony.

Rhapsody in Pink 

Pink Martini masters mixology with the KC Symphony.

How long has Thomas Lauderdale been sitting at his piano? Since returning from a walk with his dog, Heinz (the namesake of Lauderdale's record label), the leader of the Oregon group Pink Martini has spent the past forty minutes talking about making enemies, making money and making a follow-up to 1997's dazzling Sympathique. Except for one woof from Heinz, Lauderdale's rapid but gentle speech has been the only sound on his end of the phone. But when the conversation turns to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" -- Lauderdale calls it "the greatest American piece" -- he wedges the receiver between his ear and shoulder and suddenly sends a flurry of notes through the line from his loft in downtown Portland.

"I think the Leonard Bernstein 'Rhapsody' is the best. He does something no other pianist does," Lauderdale says just before attacking his piano to demonstrate the kaleidoscopic "Mysterioso" solo before the work's coda. "For years, I played it and never really got it. I sort of separated the hands, like this" -- he plays again just as fast, his left hand working further down the keyboard. "There's a sort of melody that exists, which I never knew until last year. He does it by not separating the hands."

Aside from brief dalliances with the violin, the clarinet and politics, Lauderdale, 32, has concentrated on the piano since he was 6 years old. He first learned Gershwin's most famous composition when he was 13. The next time he plays it publicly will be with the Kansas City Symphony Friday and Saturday, two of the half-dozen or so concerts this year to which Pink Martini will add an orchestral twist.

"When we first started doing stuff with orchestras, it was sort of amateurish," Lauderdale says. "It was the classic sort of boring orchestrations that symphony musicians really hate because they're just sort of whole notes and padding. Orchestras have a history of hating pop programs because they're not interesting for the individual players. The challenge has been to make the arrangements elegant and substantial."

Elegance isn't something Pink Martini lacks -- most of its members are classically trained and professionally accomplished. But the group's sophistication never seems prim or studied, and its lounge vibe hardly comes across as a lunge for the cocktail shaker. Rather than distill a few Latin beats and Continental piano runs into a hip flask, Lauderdale and company siphon melodies, harmonies and instruments from Cuba, France, Spain, Japan, Greece and Broadway. It's saucy, it swings, but it's not some facile bunny-hop soundtrack.

"The music itself is cinematic," Lauderdale says. "I'm influenced by the aesthetic of Hollywood in the '40s." He cites the music from the 1946 Rita Hayworth-in-South America film noir Gilda as "the epitome of that sound." Lauderdale also admires the work of the late film composer Bernard Herrmann, particularly his score for the 1945 mad-musician thriller Hangover Square, which in turn owes much of its sensibility to the black-tie romanticism of early-20th-century music.

On disc, Pink Martini's night-in-the-tropics version of Ravel's "Bolero" pumps new blood into the instantly recognizable classical hard-on. The 12-piece lineup on Sympathique fans out from a flickering bass, a love-drunk cello and trade-wind percussion, seductively understating the melody and supplanting the usual arrangement's hedonistic sweep with cravats-and-spats panache. To perform the piece with a symphony, Lauderdale says, the group has restored much of Ravel's original orchestration.

Besides stylish, semiformal interpretations of "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Bolero," Pink Martini will play new material the group has been working on for more than two years. For Sympathique, which has sold about 500,000 copies worldwide, Lauderdale focused on what he calls the "masterpieces" of favorite (and often little-known) composers, such as Manos Hadjidakis, whose Oscar-winning "Never on Sunday" China Forbes sings on the disc -- in Greek. The album's two originals, including the title track (which Forbes, who wrote the lyrics, sings in French), fit neatly alongside "Sunday" and an eerie, music-box reading of "Qué Sera Sera." But the group's sophomore outing, due later this year, will consist mostly of originals.

"It's a huge challenge," Lauderdale says. "The first album, nobody was paying attention, including several of the band members. I had the luxury of working slowly, without any pressure and with no expectation. But I'm not really a songwriter. Writing songs is not something I imagined I'd be doing in a thousand years."

He's not working alone, though. Divided into what he calls "grouplets," the Pink Martini members are sharing songwriting duties for the next album, and not just among each other.

"We collaborate with friends around the world," Lauderdale says. "There was a Croatian photographer who lived downstairs from me, and we worked on a song for several years. It has an Eastern European sound to it. He would come upstairs, and we'd negotiate from bar to bar as the song revealed itself."

The rest of the upcoming album promises to expand the group's range even further. "We've used a couple of vocal groups, a harpist and a small orchestra," he says. "One song, 'Hang On, Little Tomato,' has Norman Leyden, the associate conductor of the Oregon Symphony, on clarinet. On another song, we worked with a local high school gospel choir."

Lauderdale and Forbes, who both graduated with honors from Harvard, spent last fall teaching that choir. "China and I volunteered at Jefferson High School, a local school that's in huge trouble," Lauderdale says. They took over the choir class after its leader left, but then the school district brought in a replacement who'd been teaching strings to second-graders in a suburban school. "Jefferson is very African-American, and [the teacher] had never studied gospel. She had no idea about the repertoire. We were teaching this beautiful African mass by Guido Haazen," he says.

"It came to a fiery finish. We were at the district office trying to get teaching credentials, and the wrong thing was said to the wrong person. We were railroaded."

Lauderdale says that the decline of music education in public schools is partially to blame for what ails radio and the music business. "There's a certain grace and beauty that's missing in our culture right now, certainly from popular music. New classical music is unreachable for most people, and there's been a narrowing of the market so that radio stations don't have a diversity of sound or genres. In this culture that doesn't dance and sing ... we've nurtured a stay-at-home mindset."

Lounge probably isn't the new punk, but for Lauderdale, education might be the new politics. He has helped raise money for local campaigns and says he is still considering a career in politics.

"I think it's possible to be a different kind of American, one who believes it's imperative we study other languages and become less xenophobic," Lauderdale says. The band's globetrotting sound makes the band "sort of political," he says. "We have to know what we're saying and singing."

To that end, Lauderdale continues to haunt record stores in search of obscure songs to add to Pink Martini's stage repertoire. He's excited, for instance, about "a 1965 Japanese song that was written by the father of Cornelius, the Japanese DJ."

In a kind of cultural exchange, foreign markets have accounted for a substantial portion of Pink Martini's album sales. Sympathique royalties and income from commercial licensing overseas -- most profitably an ad for French carmaker Citroen -- have allowed Lauderdale to avoid dealing with labels and freed Pink Martini's members to work "pretty much full-time" as musicians.

The income has also paid for Lauderdale's loft, where he lives and the group rehearses. "I'm still in deep thought about politics," he says. "That's part of the reason for buying this building. By West Coast standards, it's old -- 1878, three stories of unreinforced brick masonry. It's beautiful, but it was going to be demolished. I've been able to stay independent, pay my taxes and not borrow, and I can build and demonstrate what that developer could have done with his money."

Maybe someone should tell Lauderdale about downtown Kansas City and give him a job description for the KC Symphony's open director's chair.

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