Pink Martini was a great choice for the season-opening concert for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, and the group brought their idiosyncratic and crowd-pleasing take on world music to a packed Arlington last Thursday. They opened with Ravel’s “Bolero,” a decision that bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale acknowledged may have broken the law. Apparently, Ravel was bothered by some early adaptations of his most famous work and took an aggressive stance toward future non-standard arrangements. Fortunately for us, Lauderdale is living dangerously, and the result-along with “Brazil”-served to bookend a night of virtuosity, elegance, and old-fashioned razzle-dazzle. Vocalist China Forbes sang beautifully in five different languages, and her cosmopolitanism won over the native speakers in the audience every time.
The Pink Martini sound has evolved some since their early days, when they mostly played hip arrangements of classical and lounge music. Today, they alternate that approach with something that’s a bit more like a jazz big band. On several numbers trumpeter Gavin Bondy conjured the work of Bubber Miley and the Ellington orchestra, and at one point drummer Martin Zarzar managed to beat a convincing version of Count Basie’s Kansas City jump sound out of his big toms. And just when you were convinced that the band had entered the jazz arena to stay, out popped violinist Nicholas Crosa to play a magnificent classical Kreisler duet with Lauderdale.
With Pink Martini, Lauderdale and Forbes have achieved something very rare on the music scene today-the establishment of an entirely original approach to creating contemporary music. Don’t let the retro trappings of the show fool you, because this is a serious orchestra with sophisticated arrangements that bring together all kinds of influences. The implicit message may take a while for some to receive, but when it arrives the news is all good. There is life beyond pop, rock, and jazz, and it is an inclusive life that embraces all cultures. The celebratory spirit of this ensemble will always be welcome in a place like Santa Barbara, where so many world travelers make their home.