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The music stylings of Pink Martini: ‘It’s not like anything else’

China Forbes and Thomas M. Lauderdale (front, center) with the rest of Pink Martini | PHOTO BY CHRIS HORNBECKER

Pink Martini’s cheeky name is no accident. It speaks to the fizzy spirit and breezy sophistication that the 11-member orchestra, decked out in natty suits and colorful dresses, brings to its music-making.

Performing original songs alongside classic hits, the popular ensemble revels in a hybrid, throwback style that mixes pop, jazz, classical and world music. It has collaborated with dozens of symphony orchestras as well as such varied performers as Carol Channing, Jimmy Scott and Rufus Wainwright.

Pink Martini

When: 8 p.m. March 25

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $40-$85

Info: (312) 294-3000; cso.org

“It’s not like anything else, so people who respond to this kind of music really become obsessed with Pink Martini,” said China Forbes, who takes turns with Storm Large as the group’s regular vocalists.

She will be front and center March 25 when Pink Martini, augmented with a couple of extra musicians, including English hornist Kyle Mustain, performs a Chicago concert under the auspices of the Symphony Center Presents series.

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale founded Pink Martini in 1994 in his hometown of Portland, Ore., as a band to perform at, believe it or not, political fundraisers. It quickly gained popularity and was soon appearing in a host of other venues and even traveling abroad.

After its first year, he called Forbes, a college classmate, and asked her to sing with the group — an invitation that to her came completely out of left field. At the time, she was contentedly pursuing a solo career as a singer-songwriter in New York City.

“I had no idea that the group existed,” Forbes said, “and barely knew where Portland was. It was before Portland was in the New York Times every other day.”

At first, Forbes flew out to Portland just for short engagements with the group, but she swiftly became a regular and wound up moving to the West Coast. While Pink Martini was a long way from the more intimate and introverted style of performing she was used to, it didn’t take her long to adapt.

“I’m not a singer-songwriter playing the guitar,” she said. “I’m standing at the microphone in a gown, but it’s super fun and really life-affirming.”

Lauderdale and she began writing songs together for Pink Martini, and their first collaboration was “Sympathique,” which the two Francophones decided should have French lyrics. The title track on the band’s first recording in 1997, it became an instant hit in France. The group has gone on to sell more than 3 million albums worldwide.

In 2011, Forbes was forced to take a leave of absence from the orchestra for vocal cord surgery, and Large capably filled in. After her successful recovery, the two agreed to split the singing duties going forward, giving Forbes more time to spend with her son and work on other projects.

One of those outside efforts was writing the song, “The Northern Line,” which can be heard at the end of “Infinitely Polar Bear.” The 2015 film, directed by the singer’s sister, Maya Forbes, offers a fictionalized account of the effect of mental illness on their family growing up.

Which of the 200 or so songs in its repertory will Pink Martini group perform when it comes to Chicago? Forbes has no idea, and that’s the point. “There’s a very serendipitous approach to the set list,” she said. “So, it’s never quite clear to almost the last minute.”

But if the exact line-up of songs is up in the air, longtime fans know exactly what kind of high-energy, effervescent experience to expect. For anyone who has never attended a Pink Martini concert, Forbes has this advice: “Put on your dancing shoes, your pretty dress and your bow tie, and come on down and prepare to be romanced.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

Posted March 23, 2016.