Hang On Little Tomato
Since its inception in the fall of 1994, when they first came together to perform as an opening act for the Del Rubio Triplets, Pink Martini have been the darlings of the local music scene; garnering public and critical acclaim unrivaled by any other band in the land. While they are a talented group of musicians and performers, Pink Martini’s success is solely attributable to the savvy and vision of firebrand pianist/bandleader Thomas Lauderdale.
An obvious fan of space age bachelor pad music, as made famous in the ‘50s and early ‘60s by the orchestras of Juan Esquivel, Les Baxter and Martin Denny (especially the latter two), Lauderdale combined the inherent exotica of that music, with elements of film composer Nino Rota (who provided the memorable soundtracks for most of Federico Fellini’s better known films) and a glitzy sense of sophisticated showmanship, reminiscent of equal parts ‘40s big bands, Liberace and Elton John. An urbanely charming ten-piece (or more) ensemble, Pink Martini are just as comfortable playing in front of the jewelry rattlers at the Oregon Symphony or the Art Museum, as playing in front or thousands of halter top moms, t-shirt dads and cotton candy kids at a summer street fair in Beaverton.
Pink Martini’s first self-produced record, Sympathique, released in 1997, became a huge hit in Europe, where it eventually sold over 600,000 copies; winning several music awards, while lending music to several popular television commercials in France. The album has certainly had legs in the states, as well- selling over 80,000 units for their US distributor in just the past three years (now seven years after its initial release) alone. For the past five years, the public has been clamoring for a follow-up to Sympathique.
And finally, after over three years and untold thousands of dollars worth of studio time at Kung Fu Bakery, with engineer Dave Friedlander (who has worked with Prince, Everclear, Jesus Presley, Stephanie Schneiderman and Pond, to name but a few) at the board, all the while with Lauderdale exhibiting nearly irrational, fastidious perfectionist eccentricities and nervous revisionist tendencies; backtracking and second-guessing himself every step of the way, comes the long-anticipated release of the sequel to Sympathique, a minimum of two years after it was first rumored to be hitting the streets.
The new record certainly reflects the meticulousness of its evolution; highlighting the emergence of China Forbes as a vocalist and songwriter, as well. Fans will not be disappointed by the aural tour de force that is Hang On Little Tomato. Those unfamiliar with Pink Martini, will find the fourteen cuts presented here, to be fabulously ornate pieces, finely embroidered with unusual, melodically exotic themes and steeped in numerous uniquely varied musical traditions: invoking the likes of Denny and Baxter‘s orchestras, even Duke Ellington, on occasion; while at times touching upon stylistic commonalities with the works of Rota, Bertolt Brecht and South American composers such as Alberto Ginastera, Astor Piazzola; displaying an awareness of elements in the compositional techniques of Brazilian composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto (especially the latter, whose wife Astrud Gilberto performed the vocal on his groundbreaking ‘60s hit song, “Girl From Ipanema”).
As with it’s predecessor, the material on Hang On Little Tomato draws its influences from a variety of cultures, alluding to Latin, French and Italian, Croatian and Japanese musical references (besides all of the aforementioned), to cite but a few. In contrast to the first album, here the band wrote or co-wrote eleven of the fourteen songs, with only three pieces coming from sources completely outside the band.
As might be expected, the overall musicianship is peerless. Forbes, especially, seems to be finding a vocal style, recalling a young Doris Day, during her teenaged days with the Bob Crosby Orchestra in the late ’30s. Guest artists include Afro/Cuban drum master Michael Shapiro and Brazilian drum specialist Jorge “Alabe” Bezerra, as well as cellist Pansy Chang, among several others.
The album begins with “Let’s Never Stop Falling In Love,” a Forbes/Lauderdale composition. With stirringly powerful, sweeping Indian-nuanced strings as an introduction, the song resolves into a cheerful, straight-ahead, Latin dance number, heavy on the percussion; with Forbes singing a somewhat predictable lyric, meant to recall a time (possibly the ’40s or the ’50s?) that not only no longer exists, but may never have really existed in the first place. Dewy, romantic imagery fills the song: “I wish a falling star could fall forever/And sparkle through the clouds and stormy weather/And in darkness of the night/The star would shine a glimmering light/And hover above our love.” Lushly recorded, with a fine solo from trumpeter Gavin Bondy, the song evokes a mood that is supplely congenial.
“Anna,” from an early ‘50s Italian film, was a hit song on both sides of the Atlantic. It features a familiar musical intro that segues into a chorus of male voices singing in unison, before Forbes takes over the lead singing duties, calling to the response of the male chorus. Another fine muted trumpet solo propels the arrangement. The title track is a lazy shuffle, with clarinet solo by former Portland Symphony conductor Norman Leyden, and a melody that somewhat recalls Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles,” from his album The Point; as well as Mama Cass Elliott’s 1968 send up of “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” a ‘30s gem written by Gus Kahn. Forbes’ vocal is pleasant, nicely capturing the spirit of the times.
With an instrumental arrangement that nicks a bit from Sergio Mendez and Brasil ‘66 (or ‘77?), “The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley” features Forbes huskily cooing a song whose melody synthesizes numerous popular songs ( I hear snippets of Judy Garland’s “You Made Me Love You,” Abba’s “Fernando,” Rosemary Clooney’s “Hey There” and Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” to name but a few). “Veronique” is a haunting ballad written by Lauderdale and author Gregory Tozian. With a subdued male vocal (Lauderdale?), the song has a plaintive vocal melody, vaguely reminiscent of “Brother Can You Spare A Dime?” played against a moody jazz arrangement with Lauderdale on piano, playing against acoustic bass, brushed snare and cymbal and a lonesome trumpet in accompaniment. Pretty.
“Dansez-vouz” is driven by Latin percussion and a pretty theme stated between John Wager’s bass and Dan Faehnle’s guitar. The song seems mainly to serve as a vehicle for Forbes to sing in French, possibly in an effort to appease French fans- who were largely responsible for the initial success of the first Pink Martini album. “Lilly” maintains the Latin rhythms, with heavy accents on Brazilian traditions, as Lauderdale sets up a highly recognizable theme on the piano.
Venturing into hip hop rhythmic territory, “Autrefois” finds Forbes gently rapping in French, intoning, cool as a raven, like a 21st century Edith Piaf, or Nina Simone. Luxuriant cello and harp color the intro to “U Plavu Zoru,” as Forbes wordlessly conjures the essence of Yma Sumac in her vocalization. After a long Eastern-tinged solo section (oddly similar to that of Jesus Presley on their rendition of “Joy To The World” from Christmas With Jesus Presley released in 1996), Forbes returns singing in Croatian, one would suppose. “Clementine” is a ‘60s-flavored, piece of Bacharachanalia, with Forbes singing forlornly, ala Claudine Longet or Sandi Shaw.
‘70s Italian television star Alba Clemente joins in for “Una Notte a Napoli” (One Night In Naples), adding a heavy dose of Italian spice and authenticity to her vocal interpretations. In an analogous move, for “Kikuchiyo To Mohshinmasu,“ the band traveled to Japan to record slide-guitarist Hiroshi Wada, whose band first recorded the song, forty years ago. Wada’s ghostly, other-worldly slide guitar stylings, along with other Japanese instrumentation lends realism to Pink Martini’s version of the song.
A neat little bossa nova nocturne, “Aspettami” benefits from simple single classical guitar accompaniment, and one of Forbes’ most affecting vocal performances. Harkening to Jobim and Gilberto, the melody borrows liberally from the two masters, while carving out a melodic direction of its own. Lauderdale and cellist Pansy Chang duet languorously on Heitor Villa-Lobos’ composition “Song Of The Black Swan.”
This album most resembles a musical hour on NPR, with thematic pieces drawn from every corner of the world. Immaculate production and flawless performances add to the timeless quality of the presentation. While the songwriting is tailor-made for (having been written by members of) the ensemble, it is a bit too imitative to reach the heights of the cover material they perform. The songwriters freely appropriate from and refer to other works, which is not inherently wrong, per se, but at times one wishes he could hear the original instead of an approximation. Still, it would be wrong to discourage Forbes and Lauderdale from continuing to learn and master their craft, for they display considerable talent for it.
Still, none of this means anything when speaking of Pink Martini. Their music stands far outside the mainstream. It is real music, not the flavor of the week. It is timeless. Their success is not to be measured on any chart in the US or Europe. For, their productions are entirely their own (the Heinz label is named after Lauderdale’s dog). They are now distributed in the US by a small, local, independent distributor, not some huge corporate conglomerate. A huge, multimillion dollar advertising campaign for the release of this album is not in the offing.
Nor is it really necessary. The music on this album will be used in films and television commercials for years to come. Jetsetters and artsy-fartsy types will be fawning over this group until the day they disband. Europe may end up considering this to be the only US export worth acquiring. They are Portland’s musical ambassadors to the world. And for that, Thomas Lauderdale, China Forbes and the rest of the members of Pink Martini deserve a civic commendation.
Camouflage Is Relative
Coup De Grace
Rapper Pete Ho returns with a follow up to his Spring 2003 release,Radio Free Brooklyn (see February 2003 Two Louies), with this fourteen song follow up, his third solo release since he left the 5 Fingers of Funk in late 1996. Later in the ‘90s, Ho moved his operation to New York City. He was soon drafted to serve as DJ for British singer/songwriter Dido.
While his last recording dealt directly with 9/11 and other serious subjects, this album deals with more mundane sorts of topics, such as interpersonal relationships and the rigors of trying to make a name in the competitive world of the music business. There’s even a song, “Scent Of A Robot,” that is the tale of an android in the process of coming to terms with the discovery of his mechanical heritage.
But, as always, what stands out for Ho is the intense intellectuality of his lyrics and the gentleness of his delivery: never antagonistic, confrontational or offensive, but rhythmically dexterous and assured, while unabashed in exploring his own intricate emotions and sensitivities. In fact, the first song of the album, “So Sensitive,” confronts these very issues, in an autobiographical tale of trying to fit in, over funky instrumental tracks, the chorus ends on the line “I need a hug.”
“I’m just you average everyday basket case/When I was young, plastic glasses with the masking tape/Hit the junior high looking for some ass to chase/Instead of getting’ down I ended up with a slap in the face/Forever lacking the grace so if she says no I’m back in her face like ‘you promised’/At least I’m being honest/The longest I went with out getting’ any play?/Well, let’s see, does that mean, like, going all the way?/OK, I admit it, I never fully did it/One time I came close but my cousin she wasn’t with it.”
The instrumentation on the aforementioned “Scent Of A Robot” wheezes like a creaking vacuum cleaner talking to jabbering synths, with a chorus that vaguely echoes Kid Rock’s “Cowboy.” Pete‘s rap on “Table Scraps” should be mandatory listening to anyone contemplating a career in the business of music: “It’s been a minute since Radio Free was finished/Made a fella start to worry his fan base diminished/Got a few heads in it a few DJs to spin it but it all had a limit (it was all my bread)/That’s cool ‘cause it was all my head that it came out of and I doubt another MC does it quite like this.” Later in the verse, he bares even deeper truths- “Made up my rhymes since way back when I was in the ninth grade with no friends and no ends and I stayed to myself with some family shit to deal with/Which is probably why so many damaged kids feel this/I believe people crave what is real/And I believe being real is why I never had a recording deal.”
“Final” is a funky piece of hip hop drama, about the effects of a breakup- “It’s the same funky feeling that I’m getting again/And it’s a shame when you’re dealing with your ex-girlfriend after she done played you like a dusty piece of vinyl/I’m saying this time it’s really final.” Robert “RPM” Muller lends soulful keyboard to the overlay, while Goldxilla and Skoota Warner add solid bass and drums to the foundation.
Pete shares the mic with X-Kid on “About Time,” and interesting exposition on contemporary physics and other philosophizing, over deft scratching by Blowout. A repetitive piano figure creates a mood similar to something Diggable Planets might generate, while the vibe remains cerebral. Muller’s funky clavinet accents punctuate “The Fall Of Williamsburg,” a hot number and accurate portrait of life in the neighborhoods- the street hustles and the varietal attitudes that come with the territory in the burroughs of New York City.
“I’m at the L train station Bedford Ave. wastin time composing’ rhymes about gentrification/Trippin’ off the people spillin’ down the stairs/By nine A.M. there be a million people chillin’ down there/Some of them dark skin some of them fair/Some of them rich some poor/Some posted up to be the first through the door/At the end four b-boys caps to the back baggy pants getting’ cold with freestyles in Polish/And I don’t understand a word so I sit and observe the whole song/How people say it’s wrong when the demographic changes but New York don’t change it just rearranges/Strange is the fact that if you go way back this neighborhood was Canarsie Indian not white or black/And if you ask me it’s their joint but I ain’t trippin’ cause I stay in Greenpoint.”
Rappers Dionysos and Stimulus join Pete for “Old News,” which takes a staunch political stance: “It’s just them white collar thugs ain’t gotta holler cause they’ve got the system with ‘em backing’ ‘em up just like the dollar does/George Bush is a criminal just like his father was/Abu Ghraib ain’t nothing new what you thought it was/Ain’t shit changed but dates and names unless the people take back the game.” A strong, memorable chorus makes of this one of the best songs among the fourteen (of which three are snippets) presented here. Muller’s work on Fender Rhodes, contrasted with John Deley’s Hammond B-3 pads add thick texture to the mix.
But the big hit of the set is the soulful “Let Me Know,” with a universal lyric, about budding romance, a smooth instrumental arrangement, aided by Muller’s muted Fender Rhodes tones and chirping synth interjections. A great, hooky chorus helps this rap to stand out as something uniquely compelling. “I See You” addresses the subtle prejudices that arise in everyday social interactions. Pete Min’s ballsy electric guitars on the solos and turns, buffs the song out nicely. Blowout contributes a verse to “It Rains In New York Too,” a sort of conversation between he and Pete about Ho‘s decision to leave Portland and move to New York, ending with the definitive conclusion of the chorus: “On time Pacific Northwest blue/Packed up my turntables said goodbye to the crew/A childhood of rainy days was finally through/But man it rains in New York too.”
Latin rhythms pervade on “All I Do,” with singer Maya Azucena adding vibrant vocal interludes against Muller’s tasty Fender Rhodes fills, a song about the struggle that relationships often endure when “money is an issue.” An extended mix sets up an infectious groove, while Pete incorporates echo-laden dub declarations against Azucena’s soulful scat singing. Tasty.
Pete Miser’s third solo album finds him widening his musical perspectives, as well as defining for himself the parameters of his very private lyrics, which divide their subject material between politics and the politics of interpersonal relationships. It is a heady blend that Pete Ho has yet to fully integrate. But the level of the work found here is consistently intelligent, thoughtful and invigorating- which is certainly a great start.
Kids Pain Relief Project
Come What May
This wonderful recording represents the best aspects of our local music community. Keyboardist Terry McGraw, just happens to be a pediatric anesthesiologist, who works for the Pediatric Pain Management Center (PPMC) at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. For this nine-song undertaking, Mcgraw enlisted the services of some of Portland’s best musicians, including pianist Clay Giberson, bassist Jeff, Leonard, drummers Mike Snyder and Carlton Jackson, along with Valerie day on percussion; Dan Balmer electric guitar, Tim Ellis, acoustic guitar; Rob Davis tenor sax and Hans Teuber alto and tenor sax and melodica; as well as utilizing the services of engineers Bob Stark and Dave Friedlander at Kung Fu Bakery.
All these musicians, as well as the label and distributor of this album, have agreed to donate the net proceeds from sales of this album to the Doernbecher Kids Pain Relief Project in support of the PPMC. And, for that reason alone, this is a venerable enterprise of the very highest order. But beyond that, this is a fine recording of several diverse light and smooth jazz styles, featuring stellar performances from all the members of the superlative cast. This is an album to own for musical, as well as charitable reasons.
A couple of songs, the title track and “Good Question,” sound very much like Aja era Steely Dan backing tracks without Donald Fagen’s vocals. That is meant as a compliment of the highest order, as the contributing musicians on that album remain some of the best in the business. Balmer’s extended lead duets with alternately Davis and Teuber are a thing of beautiful symmetry. “Come What May” has a catchy “Hey Nineteen” feel, attributable to Snyder’s Latin percussion, and slick duetting saxes between Davis and Teuber.
Balmer’s interplay with Teuber on clarinet is a highlight of Giberson’s composition, “Tidepool.” Another Giberson piece, “Xandria,” is a more contemplative piece, with Davis playing his tenor sax against Giberson’s ornate piano work. Leonard’s beautiful “Sunday” is wonderfully set off by Teuber’s scintillating turn on the melodica, creating a winsome theme that harkens to a sense of nostalgic longing, similar to “Ruby,” the theme for the film Ruby Gentry, and a hit song in the early ‘50s for the Richard Hayman and his Orchestra.
But the most engaging track of all is “Igualmente,” written by McGraw and Leonard. Over Giberson’s gently insistent piano, reminiscent of the underlying subject in Wim Merten’s classic piece from the early ‘80s, “Close Cover.” Teuber lends a lovely soprano sax solo, reminiscent of Grover Washington, while Leonard supplies lovely synth string pads.
So here is a fantastic instrumental album, filled with marvelous arrangements and outstanding ensemble work, with all the proceeds benefiting a very noble cause. It really does not get any better than this.