A defining moment in a group's career can arrive from the most unexpected of places. For Pink Martini, it came courtesy of the United Nations.
Last month Srgjan Kerim, the new president of the U.N.'s General Assembly, ordered 30 copies of Pink Martini's second album, 2004's "Hang on Little Tomato." The Macedonian was so smitten after catching a recent Pink Martini show in Vancouver that he intends to pass out the CD during his first official meeting.
"It's the best compliment we've ever received," says Thomas Lauderdale, founder and musical director of Pink Martini, adding he's considering sending the mini-orchestra's three CDs to representatives of all 192 U.N. member countries. For a band that spends considerable time performing outside the U.S. -- and in 12 languages -- the touring possibilities are staggering.
The group's heady cocktail of standards, classical, Latin and pop music draws upon myriad influences. Lauderdale loves Abba, Beethoven and Serge Gainsbourg equally. But Pink Martini's musical foundation is built on sounds from the '40s, '50s and early '60s.
"There was a real goal of creating something that was beautiful back then," Lauderdale says. "In modern culture, we've kind of lost that. It's become more complex and less beautiful. I think the challenge is to try to draw inspiration from the past, yet with a vision that's informed by what it means to be a citizen in the year 2007. There was a time in America when everyone had a piano and people gathered around it and sang. That's part of what the band is trying to do -- gather people together."
That golden era also plays heavily into the 14-piece band's look, which leans toward smart suits for the men and satiny cocktail dresses for the women, including lead singer China Forbes, who was Lauderdale's classmate at Harvard.
"It's the idea of putting on your best and going out on the town," Lauderdale says of Pink Martini's image. "When the band started, I was thinking about 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and 'La Dolce Vita.' "
Pink Martini formed in Lauderdale's hometown of Portland, Ore., in 1994 to play political rallies opposing that state's anti-gay referendum, with Lauderdale performing in a cocktail dress of his own. He hung up his pumps as he found "camp only goes so far. For the music to be really better, we needed to be more earnest and more respectful."
The band's big break in Los Angeles came in 1998 when Nic Harcourt, host of KCRW's influential "Morning Becomes Eclectic," featured Pink Martini as his in-studio guest his second week on the air.
"They had something unique . . . that I hadn't heard on a record," Harcourt recalls. "They were mixing Latin sounds with classical music. It certainly struck a chord. They were one of the most requested bands we had that year. Now with the Bowl, that's staggering. They've crossed over to a wider audience than folks just listening to 'Morning Becomes Eclectic.' "
"There's nothing like playing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl," says Lauderdale, whose band has performed with about 30 orchestras. "It's the largest audience we've played for at one time. It's a splendid atmosphere under the stars with a huge sense of history and a great orchestra."
Pink Martini last played the Bowl in 2004 with co-headliner Bebel Gilberto. This time they're bringing along the MarchFourth Marching Band, a 30-piece outfit Lauderdale describes as a cross between "Charles Dickens, Mad Max and a high school marching band," plus special guests Carol Channing and 90-year-old French singing sensation Henri Salvador.
Radio airplay beyond NPR stations has remained elusive, but that hasn't slowed album sales. The band's third CD, "Hey Eugene," debuted at No. 30 in the Billboard 200 albums chart upon release in May. Sales of its three albums have surpassed 600,000 in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The feat is all the more remarkable considering the band records for its own label, Heinz Records. "It's a hard industry, music, especially in modern times, trying to be an American band and being independent," Lauderdale says. "When people ask how we do it, I'm completely at a loss as to what to say. We've been incredibly lucky. I hope we don't ever run out of luck."
What: Pink Martini, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Price: $7 to $49 bench seating still available; other tickets sold out.
Info: (323) 850-2000; www.hollywoodbowl.com