163. Splendor in the Grass: Pink Martini, June 26, 2011

Ottawa Jazz Festival 2011

Pink Martini at the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival  

After several rainy days, it was splendor in the grass — at last —  for the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival with Oregon’s Pink Martini. (Photo of the wristband passes by VA; the image is from the festival program booklet)  

163. Splendor in the Grass: Pink Martini with Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers Parade, Confederation Park, Ottawa Jazz Festival, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Sunday June 26, 2011, $40.

 After three utterly crappadoodles days for the Ottawa Jazz Festival, punctuated by Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, and k.d. lang sneaking in sets amid a bevy of stop-start wet stuff, the Sunday marked a return to hot yet humidity-free weather with an occasional cool breeze, making it a perfect summer day for an outdoor show. And what better way to spend it than chilling out with Portland, Oregon’s “little orchestra,” Pink Martini.


For the uninitiated … how to describe just what it is that Pink Martini does? Head Martini Thomas M. Lauderdale has nailed his musical vision pretty accurately as “if the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be that house band” or “music of the world without being world music.”

PM played a much celebrated set at the Jazz Fest a few years back (that yours truly most unfortunately had to miss), and so their return to Confederation Park had been much anticipated for quite some time. A big crowd packed the joint as laid back revelers revelled in the warm, beaming daylight leading up to Martini’s evening show.

Splendor In the Grass Pink Martini Lucy Woodward Hooked 

Pink Martini’s Splendor In the Grass (2009) and Lucy Woodward’s Hooked! (2010)

But first came Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers Parade, an Ottawa-based two-drum/six-brass ensemble who played not on the stage, but instead planted themselves at a different point in the crowd for each number, delivering fun, unamplified takes on genre-spanning songs. Think “Tom Waits-led Salvation Army Band meets Tower of Power.”

The band’s unorthadox live delivery mode was a little bizarre at first, it taking me a tune or two to realize that this was in fact the preceding act. Essoudry used a megaphone to announce the numbers as the musicians moved gypsy-style from pivot to pivot for each songs, scoring a big hit with the crowd.

They mixed just the right balance of humour with fitting song selections and musicianship to make it all engaging, finishing their set with a version of “Tennessee Waltz,” breaking in the middle for the band to sing the lyrics a cappella in a fight song style.

A mess of fun for an upbeat, lazy early evening. Thanks for the entertainment, guys!

Mike Essoudry’s Mash Potato Mashers Parade across the Rideau River in Gatineau with a fun take on one of VA’s all-time fave tunes: The Meters’ “Cissy Strut.”

Not too long after, the 11-strong Pink Martini took to the stage in front of a cheering Confederation Park. The big disappointment came early with Lauderdale’s announcing that multilingual singer China Forbes has had to take time off from the band owing to vocal chord surgery, and would tonight be replaced by jazz singer Lucy Woodward.

Okay, perhaps “big” is the wrong adjective to use here. “Disappointed” may not be the right word either. While I was hoping that Forbes would be in attendance so that I could see the core members perform live, the truth is that she is often the element of Pink Martini that I least like, sometimes finding her overly enunciated vocal approach a little too bland and “college music program graduate”-precise for my liking. Woodward made for a great replacement, putting a little more swing into things. I liked her paired with the group so much that I’d love to hear her record with them.

In reciprocation of her helping out, Pink Martini performed “He Got Away” from Woodward’s latest release, Hooked!, with the jumping number one of the evening’s highlights. Still, Lucy had big shoes to fill, not just as frontwoman vocalist but also because it meant that she would be singing in a range of languages including Croatian on “…. In the Blue Dawn” and Japanese for “The Song of the Black Lizard,” afterwards remarking “that was my first time singing in Japanese .. . I learned that three days ago.”

Pink Martini with Lucy Woodward performing “El Negro Zumbon” at Summerstage in NYC, a few weeks after I saw them live in Ottawa, earlier this summer.

Even when English was the lyric language, the music itself often took its cues from a variety of global points: Latin, Russian, Asian, and more. During the latter part of the set, they tackled one of their best known numbers, “Je ne veux pas travailler” (“I Don’t Want to Work”), and, this being the very bilingual Ottawa/Gatineau National Capital Region straddling the Ontario/Quebec border, Pink Martini sought out a volunteer guest vocalist from the audience. Lauderdale called on anyone who knew the lyrics and could carry a tune to come up on stage and sing it with the band. After a few minutes, a taker emerged.

The fellow who did eventually jump at the challenge had the main line in the chorus down pat. The rest of the song, far less so. He unsuccessfully tried making up the remainder, and then tried leaving the stage before being directed by Lauderdale in the lyrics, with poor-to-wash-out results. If nothing else, it was pretty funny.

Woodward got plenty of other vocal reprieves during the night, not just via audience participation vehicles but also owing to Pink Martini’s instrumental numbers, such as the jazzy “Ohayoo Ohio,” written by guitarist Dan Faehnle, which recalls Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” For me, I think it may have been the night’s finest moment. “Ohayoo” and a few other vocal-less pieces acted as showcases that allowed various Martini musicians to flex and dazzle with alternating, virtuoso soloing.

 “Ohayhoo Ohio (Hello Ohio)” from 2009’s Splendor in the Grass. This animated video was one of the winners of a fan-made video contest the band held.

The collective’s classical influences were also part of the proceedings, with a small section of the band playing a gorgeous Mozart piece, drifting over the audience on the clear, balmy night, while Lauderdale trotted out a Schubert composition on the piano before going on to play another of the Martini’s songs that was based on the just-played piece. Titled “And Then You’re Gone,” he explained the song’s noir-ish themes, set in Cuba, sung by a woman who’s lamenting being two-timed one time too many by her no-goodnik man. “It’s “Hit the Road Jack” meets Schubert meets Gloria Gaynor in 1952 Cuba,” he humorously encapsulated.

Amusingly, “Gone” was followed by its answer song, “But Now I’m Back,” presenting things from the man’s p.o.v.

After knocking back 16 numbers, Pink Martini drank up and fled the joint, re-appearing for an encore with the standard, “Brazil.” Lauderdale and the crew beseeched everyone to get up and dance — and we all did! And with that, Pink Martini was drained dry. Good to the last sip, leaving us shaken and stirred.

We filed out to Stan Freberg’s “Oregon! Oregon!” blasting through the speakers, all in attendance punch drunk on the bouncing vibes. Alas, owing to our schedules and a trip to Toronto Pride the next weekend, this was the last show of this year’s JazzFest that we we able to attend, missing out on Jill Barber, Paco De Lucia, and Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub among others who I had hoped to catch. Can’t do it all. But, following several days of preceding precipitation blues, it was pure pleasure to be outdoors under clear skies, hear some great music, and truly find splendor in the grass.

Another fan-made video for Splendor in the Grass‘ title track.

Next On Stage –> 159. Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Monday June 20, 2011.

and I’ll soon be returning to the past with …

014. Gimme Danger: Iggy Pop with Nash the Slash, Wonderland Gardens, London, Ontario, Canada, Wednesday, October 27, 1982 — featuring guest contributor M. Zeppelin on the topic of some spirited social interactions with Iggy and his band.

NOTE: I simultaneously cross-post over on my Open Salon blog, where I also have a deeper backlog of entries. 

© 2011 VariousArtists

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