Pink Martini At Massey Hall in Toronto on Friday
"Craziest. Show. Ever."
That's how Pink Martini's China Forbes summed up their performance at Massey Hall on Friday, and it was easy to see her point. There aren't many bands that perform Auld Lang Syne in English, French and Arabic, and even if there were, how many would segue from the New Year's classic into Ary Barroso's immortal samba, Brazil.
And that's not even taking Emre into account. But more on him later.
Pink Martini is clearly an oddity in the pop world. Formed by two Harvard alums - singer Forbes and pianist/arranger Thomas Lauderdale - in Portland, Ore., the undectet (11-piece ensemble) combines the sonic exoticism of "Space Age Pop" acts such as Esquivel and Les Baxter with an encyclopedic appreciation of non-Anglophone hits.
Campy? You bet, but without a hint of kitsch. As befits the band's Ivy League pedigree, Pink Martini's music is shot through with musical intelligence, and that, along with their ability to sing in anything from Japanese to Greek, keeps things from getting mired in broadly winking irony. Take, for example, their opening arrangement of Ravel's Bolero. Although precisely the sort of light classic that, 50 years ago, would have been fodder for bachelor pad music, Lauderdale's treatment - which swapped the signature three-four pulse for a rolling, Afro-Cuban figure in six - not only reframed the work in a North American context but made the underlying carnality of Ravel's melody more audible to modern ears.
Of course, it didn't hurt that Pink Martini is essentially an over-extended rhythm section. In addition the standard accoutrement of piano, guitar, bass, and trap kit, there were usually another three or four band members on percussion duty, slapping bongos, pounding congas, shaking a tambourine or scratching a guiro. At several points - most notably on Tuca Tuca, which featured a comically sensual dance routine by Lauderdale and Forbes - more than half the band was drumming.
Even so, they were never merely slaves to the rhythm, because the pulse was always in the service of something else, usually a melody. And that's part of the reason Pink Martini can perform in languages most of its audience doesn't understand. Because if all those foreign words are being pushed along by a deliriously infectious beat, it's much harder to worry about what, exactly, the singer is crooning.
Which brings us to Emre. About an hour and a half into the show, Lauderdale announces that the band is going to do Bukra Wba'do, a song the band had learned "because people kept asking us to do something in Turkish." It being a very famous song in Turkey, he invited any Turks in the crowd to join them on stage. What they got was Emre, an amiable young man in jeans and a sweater who seemed born for the stage.
Not only did Emre sing confidently, he danced with Forbes and carried on as if performing at Massey Hall were an everyday occasion. He stuck around for the last song of the set, playing maracas on Amado Mio, and resumed flirting with Forbes during the encores as Lauderdale teasingly tinkled the Theme from Love Story.
"I'm sorry Emre, but it is not meant to be," protested Forbes, mentioning her husband and son. A moment later, however, she was going on about Dancing with the Stars and practising her merengue with Emre. Which somehow led to Auld Lang Syne.
As she said: Craziest. Show. Ever.