Three nights of packed houses point to the power of the undefinable -- no mater how Pink Martini gets described, there's always an element being overlooked, a reliance on phrases such as lounge, cosmopolitan rumba or neo-classical that only tells part of this rich story.

Three nights of packed houses point to the power of the undefinable — no mater how Pink Martini gets described, there’s always an element being overlooked, a reliance on phrases such as lounge, cosmopolitan rumba or neo-classical that only tells part of this rich story. Impressive at every musician’s station, the ensemble produces music that’s charming and elegant, a tribute to leader Thomas Lauderdale’s adept handling of Cuban rumba and Parisian cafe tunes and his ability to balance them with a bit of Carnival disco, a quickie from composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and “Que Sera Sera.”

Popular on the party circuit at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Portland, Ore., band has been championed by the indie public radio crowd, leading to sales of 50,000 for their self-released album, “Sympathique.” Friday’s perf, taped and broadcast Saturday evening on KCRW, conveyed the sophistication of the disc and a newfound crispness made all the more profound by the exact and nuanced bass playing of John Wagner as well as a rock-solid four-member percussion team.

Show began with “Bolero,” Lauderdale’s careful orchestration reminiscent of the work of Mexican bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel. Lauderdale, his back to the audience with the piano front and center, drove the band with a steady hand, moving from the rumba of “Amado Mio” to the Spanish overtones of “Andalucia” and the dreamy “Aspetta Mi.” The wealth of instrumentation was truly maximized, with bongos, trombone, guitar and cello called upon to give each piece a distinct mien.

Cellist Pansy Chang supplied the heavy drama — the best example was a tense duet with bowed bass against a rising drum background — but singer China Forbes held sway with an intoxicating sultriness. She imbued each of the 14 vocal tunes with a sensual finesse and turned “Que Sera Sera” into a otherworldly affair as the band kept march time with chiming percussion and colored the Doris Day hit with an abrupt brass presentation.

Pink Martini

The Mint; 200 capacity; $15 top

Production

Presented by KCRW/Laura Connelly. Opened March 18, 1999; reviewed March 19; closed March 20.

Cast

Band: Thomas Lauderdale, China Forbes, Robert Taylor, Gavin Bondy, John Wagner, Richard Rothfus, Brian Davis, Doug Smith, Derrick Rieth, Pansy Chang.
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