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Alex Pangman swings the ballroom at Merrickville's Jazz Fest (review)

Alex Pangman's vocals and John MacLeod's cornet often sounded as though they were singing a duet together. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Alex Pangman & Her Alleycats
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Baldachin Inn Ballroom
Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos of this performance

One of Alex Pangman's signature songs is “Rhythm Is Our Business”, a swing tune from the 1930s in which the vocalist talks about her band and all their quirks. The fast-paced number showed off the skill of her musicians and the vibrancy and humour in her music, and allowed Pangman to tell the audience all about the history of that song.

It typified her approach: take traditional swing music from the 20s to the early 40s, and make it come as alive to her listeners as it does for her. Supported by a talented band, she was easily able to do that at Merrickville's Jazz Fest.

The word had already gone out that this was a concert that shouldn't be missed. The Baldachin Ballroom was stuffed with more than 200 listeners – which unfortunately meant there was no room for dancing, which Pangman's music often inspires. Three rows of extra chairs were brought in to accommodate the unexpected high demand for tickets to this show. And, as soon as Pangman reached the stage, she was greeted with clapping and cheers.

In two 45-minute sets, she performed a varied, generally upbeat selection of songs, many of which – like “I'll Never Smile Again” or “Honeysuckle Rose” – were classics which would have been familiar to her audience.

And the lesser-known pieces were delightful: for example, “The Mad About Her, Sad About Her, How Can I Be Glad About Her Blues”, a boogie-woogie number which was on one of the first 78s Pangman bought. Its combination of fast vocals, sunny piano, and raw-edged cornet evoked very strong applause from the audience.

Pangman has a strong, clear voice, which can effortlessly hold notes and change direction on a dime. You would never know from her style that she's had two double lung transplants (which she acknowledges with a call to listeners to become organ donors, but doesn't emphasize).

She easily and fluently delivers the lyrics to her songs – even when the music is going lickety-split. She can belt out a blues inspired by Bessie Smith, croon the romantic number “I'm Confessin' That I Love You”, or tell a dramatic story, as she did in a song that actor Jimmy Cagney also recorded, “Shanghai Lil”.

What really made the show for me was the support she got from her band. These were all musicians with whom she was well familiar: pianist Peter Hill and drummer Glenn Anderson have each appeared on several of her albums. They and trumpeter John MacLeod are part of her current touring band. Bassist Jack Zorawski played on her very first garage recording.

MacLeod in particular added an extra level of authenticity and musicality to the songs. His cornet often sounded as though it was singing a duet with Pangman, responding to her phrases and enhancing the mood. Unlike some trumpet players, he didn't need to be loud to create memorable sounds: he had a large selection of trumpet mutes at his feet and used all of them to add nuance to his playing. At one point, in “Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?”, he picked up a plastic beer glass and used that as a mute to get exactly the correct vibrating sound.

The band played one instrumental without Pangman in each set. “Up the Lazy River” got a bluesy, syncopated rendition with sparkling piano from Hill and wah-wah cornet lines from MacLeod, while “Bye Bye Blackbird” was treated more delicately, with a wistful, evocative cornet solo and thoughtful piano improvisations.

Pangman gave a particularly interesting reading to the classic, “Stardust”, which she recorded on Have a Little Fun, her CD with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Most vocalists give it the velvet treatment; she, instead, sung it as though she was immersed in the words, but with a bit of an edge. Hill added a reflective piano solo; Zorawski a melodic and resonant bass solo; and MacLeod put a cup mute on his cornet and played it slow and sweetly, ending the piece on a long, full note. The audience gave it loud applause.

I also quite enjoyed “When I Get Low, I Get High”, an early Ella Fitzgerald number which Ella recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra. It was great joyous fun, with a swinging feel very true to the period.

It was no surprise that the audience gave Pangman two standing ovations. Her songs had great lyrics, and she delivered them with understanding and love and verve, supported by musicians who also clearly enjoyed and understood traditional swing.

   – Alayne McGregor

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's reviews of concerts at the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest, and interviews with musicians appearing at the festival:

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015