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Around the world in 80 minutes

Hear the sights with Pink Martini

Thomas Lauderdale and Storm Large. Photo courtesy of Chris Hornbecker

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There are writers who classify Portland-based Pink Martini as a lounge band, but it's clearer to call it a danceable jazz combo with international flair.

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale was hoping to be mayor someday and founded Pink Martini in 1994 as a backing band for political fundraisers. His plan derailed when the band's first single, "Sympathique," took off in France. China Forbes, a classmate of Lauderdale's at Harvard, sang lead for Pink Martini through albums Hang On Little Tomato and Hey Eugene! Then, as Forbes recovered from throat surgery in 2011, punk queen and rock star: Supernova semifinalist Storm Large (her real name) signed on.

The band has attracted a rabid multinational following for songs that borrow liberally from cultures all over the world. Forbes and Large trade lead vocal responsibilities now, and Large fronts this week's shows in both Oly and Tacoma.

We asked Lauderdale how many languages are sung on the current tour. He guessed 15.

"I can do interviews in French," he continued, "and I've studied Japanese and Russian and Spanish. Storm speaks Spanish. For the others, we work with experts from Portland State or other countries."

We asked about his favorite cities.

"Cities are great for different reasons," he said. "The band loves Istanbul. I like playing small towns. We were in Raleigh, North Carolina, eight years ago, and three guys from Fort Bragg walked up. I was stunned they'd driven so far to see us. It's amazing to be surprised. I grew up the son of a pacifist minister in Indiana. I never imagined for a moment I'd be collaborating with the military, but we worked on the Oregon sesquicentennial with the National Guard 234th Army Band. Those are the kinds of partnerships and bridges the band can build."

So where does Lauderdale find his material?

"What amazes me is the lack of curiosity that young people have about the past," he replied. "I majored in history and literature in college, so it's all about digging. I dig through libraries, music stores and old sheet music. When we go to a new country, I investigate songs from that country. For example, we'd been to Romania five times, and I'd promised a Romanian song. I thought, ‘I can't face the Romanian press again empty-handed,' so I bought all the records I could find. I went through hundreds of songs. That was an amazing moment, doing Romanian in Bucharest. It was nuts. It gave me chills.

"One of the great things about the band, maybe, is when we sing in the language of whatever country we're in, there's recognition, acknowledgment and validation.  The rest of the world doesn't always view us that way. There's an assumption about American tourists and how loud, trashy and arrogant we might be. I think we dispel that a bit. It's as much ambassadorship as it is music."

PINK MARTINI, 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, $34-$110, 253.591.5890

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