The last time Pink Martini played the Hollywood Bowl, in the pre-pandemic era of 2019, the venue made the delightfully eclectic global jazz lounge fusion band the centerpiece of a weekend long event celebrating their 25th Anniversary that featured different opening acts on three different nights and the backing of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins.
With a core band comprising various vocalists and a large ensemble featuring choir and a string section, Pink Martini generates a dynamic multi-cultural excitement all its own without extra guests and hoopla. Yet in the spirit of making that series of shows a true anniversary event, there was an endless stream of special guests, capped by over a dozen former Miss Americas repurposing Helen Reddy’s iconic “I Am Woman” for the #metoo era. Though my comments were positive because of Pink Martini’s always engaging artistry and entertainment value, I summed that concert up this way: “Anyone trying to pinpoint exactly who Pink Martini was behind the endless guests might have been out of luck because partying was the theme of the night.”
Fortunately for what looked to be a sold out crowd for their single show in mid-September, the latest Pink Martini show was truly all about Pink Martini, with founder and versatile and charismatic bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale, the band’s first lead singer China Forbes and longtime guest vocalists Storm Large, Ari Shapiro, Edna Vasquez and Jimmie Herrod sensually sashaying and romping through some of their best known and most colorful tunes, sung infectiously and emotionally in an exotic kaleidoscope of multiple languages.
Between the principals, instrumental soloists (most prominently, violinist Nick Crosa’s stunning lengthy solo intro to the ultimately whimsical and jazzy “U plava zoru”), rhythm section, horns, small choir and 12-piece string section, there were about 35 participating artists. Yet compared to the almost circus-like presentation of 2019, the show offered a more meaningful intimacy and fostered a greater sense of emotional connection despite the diversity of repertoire and the large, vibrant sound.
As if to offer a vibrant introduction to the Portland, Oregon based group, Pink Martini began its generous 20-song (including several encores) set with the sizzling Latin energy of the Spanish “Amado Mio” and their sultry and playful French language original “Sympathique” (whose subtitle “Je ne veux pas travailler” roughly translates to “I don’t want to work”), two Forbes-sung trademark gems from their 1997 debut album Sympathique. As if sharing their musical catalog in order, the band zipped right into the feisty, brass tinged “Lilly,” from their second album Hang On Little Tomato. Shortly thereafter, the freewheeling series of vocalists (some billed as guests, some core members) took center stage for a few moments each, starting with the deeply soulful Edna Vasquez (“Quizas Quizas Quizas,” “Sola Soy”), and continuing with Jimmie Herrod (a dramatic sociopolitical interpretations of “Exodus”), Timothy Nishimoto (a sexy and sassy, ultra-danceable “Donde Estas Yolanda?”) and Storm Large, who held court majestically on “Ich Dich Liebe” and the sexy Romanian torch song “Până când nu te iubeam.”
One of the set’s most playful sequences was the back to back conversation between Large’s sassy lament “And Then You’re Gone” (which opened with a showcase of Lauderdale’s classical and jazz improv skills), followed by regular guest Ari Shapiro’s spirited rejoinder “And Now I’m Back,” featuring a playful big band era call and response style. Forbes then returned for another trademark tune, a sly, coolly jazzy narrative about surreal night dancing at a club.
Another way in which the 2022 Pink Martini show surpassed the overall experience of the 2019 renditions was their choice of opening act. On that weekend three years earlier, you had to have a scorecard to keep track of who was playing which night. On this current occasion, they gave a generous 45 minutes to four time Grammy winning West African jazz/Afropop/world music singer songwriter and dynamic performer Angelique Kidjo. Dressed in colorful pink and alternately wearing a headwrap or showing off her close cropped hair, Kidjo engaged the crowd with her intensity of movement and thoughtful anecdotes as she rolled through a ten song set of English and African language ballads and up-tempo celebratory anthems.