As founder of the 25-year-old chamber-pop ensemble Pink Martini, pianist and arranger Thomas Lauderdale has performed with some charismatic personalities, including the band's own lead singers, China Forbes and Storm Large, as well as Michael Feinstein, Chavela Vargas and the late Phyllis Diller. But he's currently gaga for Meow Meow, a.k.a. Melissa Madden Gray, the multi-lingual Australian vocalist, actress and performer whom he'll accompany for a pair of cabaret-like shows on Wednesday, March 20, at the intimate Bing Studio on the Stanford University campus.
"I think about all the shows I've ever done, the ones with Meow Meow are the most memorable," Lauderdale said. "I mean, I love Pink Martini. I love the band and I love what we do. But these shows with Meow Meow are so special. I believe in them so much."
Meow Meow's brand of audience immersion and interaction earns Lauderdale's praise. He's no stranger to crowd participation, he notes, as Pink Martini will bring patrons on stage to sing non-English lyrics with Forbes or dance among the instrumentalists during its concerts.
"But with Meow Meow I've seen crowd surfing in Palm Desert, for example, where everybody in the audience was over 70," the Portland, Oregon, resident reported. "They were literally lifting this woman up into the sky and passing her back through the auditorium! She also does this at symphony shows when she plays with orchestras.
"One can't imagine that in the first place and that it would work so well," he continued. "Her shows are so delightful and side-splitting and transforming."
The pair first met when he was asked to accompany her in 2005 for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's annual TBA Festival. Their personalities and aesthetics clicked immediately: "We discovered we have compatible interests where we each show the other fantastic things that we both appreciate," he said.
She, in turn, has also gigged and recorded with Pink Martini. "We just did our annual New Year's shows at Disney Hall, and she closed out that show. Again, I've never seen laugh people so uproariously," he said.
"Los Angeles can be cynical at times, you know. And she just undoes it," he continued. "The most straightest sort of people or the most conservative can't help themselves in the end."
Wednesday's show will offer a preview of the duo's long-in-the-works debut album, "Hotel Amour," which will be released two days later and boasts both originals and repertoire from various eras.
"Writing song with her is just miraculous, because I love her lyrics," he added. "I love the way she uses the English language, which I think is a really tough language to write songs in. And her French lyrics are exquisite."
As is the case on Pink Martini albums, "Hotel Amour" features some very special guests. Barry Humphries, better known to most as Dame Edna, doubles the Australian vocal content on "Mausi, süß wars Du heute Nacht" (for which Meow Meow gets great use out of her German degree from Trinity College in Melbourne). There's also a recording of her with the composer Michel Legrand, who died in late January.
"There was a revival of his 'Umbrellas of Cherbourg' in London back in 2011. And Michel Legrand loved Meow Meow so much that he wrote a new part for her," Lauderdale explained. "That recording he did with her has him on piano, and I added in like five trombones."
Singer/songwriter/pianist Rufus Wainwright and the Von Trapps of "The Sound of Music" fame also contribute to the pair's debut.
Lauderdale will be joined by a handful of his Pink Martini bandmates for this tour. So it's neither the duo shows that he and Meow Meow have done in the past (albeit backed by orchestras) nor the "little big band" ones to which he's become accustomed with his usual group.
"It feels more acoustic than anything else," he remarked, when asked about the pared down instrumentation. "I don't really have a monitor when I play with (Pink Martini). I always wonder, 'Why do we have all of these monitors on stage? Are we playing that loud that we can't just sort of play directly to each other?' So I'm relieved that there isn't going to a bunch of sound equipment everywhere."
Regardless of how many instrumentalists are on the bandstand, everyone fades out once the spotlight hits Meow Meow. "I really take a super back seat to her! My job is to provide musical support to something that is way beyond my control.
"If there is anything at this point that is a miraculous escape from reality, it's a Meow Meow show," he concluded, with a chuckle. n
Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Meow Meow & Thomas Lauderdale.
Where: Bing Studio, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford.
When: Wednesday, March 20, at 7 & 9 p.m.
Info: Go to Stanford Live.