When Pink Martini’s album Sympathique – now out as a 20th-anniversary reissue – was first released, it could scarcely have been more different than what was expected from new bands coming out of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. Instead of flannel shirts and twitchy angst, Portland’s Pink Martini arrived in tuxedos, glittery gowns and singing un-ironically of full-throated romance. The opening song, “Amado Mio”, makes an entrance on swirls of harp runs, giving way to the big, clear, show-stopping voice of singer China Forbes. The “little orchestra” then kicks in with its Latin-nightclub clave rhythms on the song from the 1946 film noir classic Gilda, originally performed by Rita Hayworth.
Sympathique quickly established the band’s wheelhouse and its de facto mission: introducing classic American music to the world and introducing the world to American audiences. In fact, though the band was a local favorite in Portland, they got their first big break abroad with the retro title song “Sympathique”, which won song of the year in France and went gold in several European countries. The song’s cheeky French lyrics led it to become an unofficial theme song for organized labor.
Walking a fine line between politics and party band, Pink Martini was actually born as an informal ensemble to perform at political fundraisers. Founder Thomas Lauderdale thought the music at fundraisers was boring, so he stepped forward to fill in the excitement gap. While not tackling politics head-on, the band’s multi-culturalism and diversity hint at its progressive leanings. Sympathique featured songs sung in French and Greek; their repertoire today includes songs in more than 20 languages.
In song after song on Sympathique, Pink Martini countered the era’s cutting-edge cynicism and irony with optimism and old-fashioned romanticism. Retro without basking in kitsch, Pink Martini bypassed nostalgia by recreating a cosmopolitan past that never quite existed. So while they covered the Doris Day hit “Que Sera Sera”, they reinvented it as a slow, haunting waltz.
The world tour that is Sympathique took listeners to “Brazil” (still a crowd favorite, sparking innumerable conga lines), “Andalucia”, Greece via “Never on a Sunday”, and Ravel’s “Bolero”, which was pulled from the original album due to copyright issues and is now back in place on the re-issue.
Regardless of the songs’ style or arrangement, the anchor of the big band was the trenchant piano playing of Lauderdale and Forbes’ classic voice. The two had met while attending Harvard and finding in each other a kindred musical spirit, they would play at parties or sneak off to rehearsal rooms and indulge their eclectic musical tastes. The two went their separate ways after college, but as Lauderdale began to form the band, he convinced Forbes to come to Portland, Oregon, from New York City – first for occasional gigs and then to relocate permanently. Although Forbes had been a mainstay, the band always used guest vocalists – including Pepe Raphael of the Bottle Blondes on “Donde Estas, Yolanda” here – adding the appropriately named Storm Large as an additional lead in recent years.
Sympathique remains one of Pink Martini’s most-consistently strong albums and the years have only burnished its cherished place in the hearts of fans. It remains a great introduction to a band that seems immediately familiar even if it is sui generis.