Read's review of Pangman's show at the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest.

Toronto jazz vocalist Alex Pangman loves the excitement and vibrancy of traditional swing music. Ever since her teens, she's been collecting recordings from the first part of the 20th century – and then celebrating that music in her performances.

Alex Pangman (photo by Steve Payne, used by permission)
Alex Pangman (photo by Steve Payne, used by permission)

A three-time National Jazz Awards nominee, Pangman was mentored by blues guitarist and trumpeter Jeff Healey – a huge fan and collector of old-time swing music himself – who produced the first two of her seven albums.

On October 17, Pangman and her Alleycats will be one of the headliners at Merrickville's Jazz Fest. It's an uncommon Ottawa-area appearance. She got audiences dancing in the park at the 2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, but her only other recent show here was at a swing dance in 2012.

Pangman talked with editor Alayne McGregor last week about her music, the musicians she's enthusiastic about playing with, and how she's now feeling “fit as a fiddle” after several major lung challenges. The following is an edited version of the conversation. What do you call the type of music that you sing?

Pangman: Hmmm... I've called it many things over the years. I think I would call it traditional swing.

It's very much rooted in the music from the 1930s. We play it as authentically as we know how, and we don't tart it up with rock drums or any of that. Could you give me a start and end date for the music you perform?

Pangman: I would say about 1920 to about 1945. I like a lot of other kinds of music, but this is the one that I professionally focus on. Of the music that you perform, is it all music that was written then, or is it music in that style?

Pangman: I would say that it's 90% music that was written then. The other 10% would be stuff that I have written in that style, inspired by the writers and the artists of the Great American Songbook and the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley. I think it is important to at least put your thumb-print in there as a songwriter once in a while.

I wrote a song on our album, 33, which was all songs from 1933 – except for one which I wrote, called “As Lovely Lovers Do”. I'd been listening to copious amounts of Bing Crosby from the year 1933, when I was auditioning songs for the record. It's true in form, so it's the same form as an old song.

I've often faced challenges where it's hard to reconcile my modern way of speaking with the older genre, but this song seemed to just trip off my tongue really nicely and so... It's a little song about break-ups and losing out in love. Were anyone of the songs on your latest album, New, written by you?

Pangman: Yes. I wrote a song called “It's Never Enough”, which again is written in an old form. It was actually written about my website designer and his wife. He had a great adoration for her his whole life until she passed away. And so that song is just about when you have something that's good, it's never long enough. They were high-school sweethearts and they were grandparents. He wrote this lovely letter – I actually was inspired from the letter where he wrote to tell his family that she'd gone.

We actually just made a music video for that song. When is Merrickville? The 17th of October? The video might be out by then. What type of reaction do you get from audiences to this type of music?

Pangman: We get a pretty varied reaction. When we play nightclubs, sometimes you get people that are really listening and clapping for all the solos and listening; it's almost like a supper club. And then sometimes you play a nightclub and you're just part of the party and people are drinking a lot.

But maybe I think one of my favourite reactions is when people dance, and that does happen quite a lot. Do you get a lot of swing dancers?

Pangman: We do! That's been a pretty good source of inspiration for me and also of work for the band, too, because they like to dance to live music. I've learned a lot about playing for swing dancers, and what tempos they like, and how they like their music. It's great – you feel as though you're entertaining them, and in return I'm watching them! They're entertaining me right back!

I was seeking those beautiful lyrics and those really entrancing melodies – and I found it! And I stuck with it.
– Alex Pangman Take me a bit further back. How did you fall in love with this type of music?

Pangman: It just so happened that I always liked to sing but I just didn't really have an outlet to sing, until one of the gentleman at the riding stable – I've been a horseback rider all my life – he introduced me to jazz. It's clichéd, but it was just like that: I fell head over heels. It was the antithesis of everything I'd been listening to in high school on the popular radio. I was seeking those beautiful lyrics and those really entrancing melodies – and I found it! And I stuck with it. About how old would you have been then?

Pangman: I think I was about 15 or 16.

There hadn't really been jazz in my house and what jazz records Dad did have were more modern, and so this gentleman at the stable introduced me to singers like Bessie Smith, and I was listening to Louis Armstrong singing, from again the 20s and 30s. That's when I really fell in love with this lovely, melodic, lyrical form of music. How did you meet Jeff Healey?

Pangman: Again one of the people from the riding stable. They were big fans of traditional jazz music, and so they knew that I was taking interesting in singing, and they brought me down to the big City of Toronto to hear a band called The Hot Five Jazzmakers. The Hot Five played a Saturday matinée, and a regular one at that, and Healey was there sitting in.

And so we really met on the bandstand. And I think he took an interest in the fact that somebody under the age of 30 was ... I guess at that point I might even have been under the age of 21 ... was singing music that was from the 1930s. So that's how I met him, actually on stage. So you sat in with that band yourself?

Pangman: Yes [laughs]. What influence did you think he had on what you sang or how you sang it?

Pangman: He had a massive collection of jazz, early jazz, and so I didn't go to university or college to study music. I basically listened to a lot of records, through the courtesy of Jeff. And I learned about melody.

You know, I didn't excel in music classes. I was bad at reading music. So I just listened to a lot of records, and started playing the songs I was hearing on the records. I basically learned my craft spinning a lot of discs, and then just taking them on stage and learning on the bandstand. How did you become a collector of old records?

Pangman: [Laughs] Because I had such a great hunger to learn more songs and find out more. It was like a discovery; I felt like I was discovering stuff that nobody else in the world had discovered before. It was really important I collect every record I possibly could. And it became a little bit of an addiction – and a good one!

I collected a lot on 78 rpm because those were the original source material that we had. But more and more lately, you can only have so many shelves that are full of records. And then I moved into the modern age, and now I have [she gasps theatrically] CDs and MP3s [laughs].

Yes, it's great, the thrill of the hunt, when you're in a little store that's filled with records. “Oh, do I have that one? Oh that's great! Have I heard that song before? Oh look! Same writers!” Anyway, it was fun, and I've got so many records now that I would need a team of people to help me move them if ever I moved. Are most of yours specific to the era that you sing in?

I basically learned my craft spinning a lot of discs, and then just taking them on stage and learning on the bandstand.
– Alex Pangman

Pangman: Yes. Absolutely. And shellacs, the 78s – they're heavy! So when you go to a new town, do you look up the record stores?

Pangman: I used to. I don't know that I'm that dogged at finding new material at the moment. And sometimes they're antique stores, if you're looking for 78s. Is your record collection the primary source for additions to your repertoire?

Pangman: It's something that I do go back to. I seem to go in cycles, like I will draw from it a lot, and then I might let it languish for months and not take anything from the stacks. But it's always there to go back to.

Right now my main source has been – if you can believe it or not! – Internet radio. I've just been enjoying hearing new things and hearing new artists. I've been to New Orleans and New York multiple times in the last few years, and heard some really great musicians who are playing currently, now – modern exponents of an early style, kind of like myself. And it's also good for me to know who else is out there playing this music.

It's how I ended up in New Orleans making a record [New, in 2014]. There's a lot of great musicians down there playing the stuff, in the style that I love. So the Internet is a pretty cool place. Are there any other places you would find out about music?

Pangman: Sometimes I just find going to a city and saying “Hey, where can I hear some good music?”, or standing out in front of a club and asking the musicians: “Hey, I'm here till Thursday. What's happening tomorrow night?” “Well, there's this club in the Bywater – you want to go there. Check it out.” What will you be performing in Merrickville?

Pangman: I'm excited to come [to Merrickville]; I'm always excited to come to new towns, especially smaller towns. It's a big deal when you come to a small town and they're really excited.

We're playing two sets. We will play all the stuff from New, which came out just about a year ago now. We'll play that whole set. And then I think the second set will most likely be an amalgam of some of my other projects. We'll bring copies of all the albums along with us. We'll probably include some stuff from 33, and from Live in Montreal, and Have a Little Fun. Usually you'll hear a little bit from everything from me. It's interesting you're playing with trumpeter John MacLeod, who made a real impression on me with his big band compositions when he was in Ottawa a few years ago. What does he bring to your traditional swing music?

John MacLeod, with plunger mute. ©Brett Delmage, 2012
John MacLeod, with plunger mute. ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Pangman: Well, it's funny because I'd always thought that [MacLeod's] quintet was quite modern. But he has a great adoration and affinity for playing small-group swing as well.

So what does he bring? He brings about eight mutes. He brings attention to detail, and he brings a signature sound – I don't know if you remember, but he does these great [sounds], he even sounds like a horse sometimes!

So he brings that. But he also brings, I think, a great understanding of some of the classic cornet players too. Which is great, when you're a singer, to have somebody that ... there's a lot of beboppers out there. John doesn't do that. And he listens, and he doesn't step on you, and he accents in all the right places. So it's been great to start to get to play with him a little bit more.

He literally brings more mutes than any trumpet player or cornet player I've ever seen. Will he play trumpet or flugelhorn as well as cornet?

Pangman: Usually he just brings his cornet, but I'm not sure. And the thing is, because he has so many different sounds, one minute he's playing close-mic'ed through a really old-school 1920s-sounding mute, and then the next minute he's playing with a plunger and he's being really big and sounding like brrrrrr. Yes, he's got all the sounds, and so he doesn't really need that many more instruments with that many mutes! Tell me about Peter Hill, your pianist.

Pangman: I've often called him a singer's best friend. If someone says, “Hey can you play this song?” and they call some random Gershwin song, I'll say “I think I can sing it. Peter, can you play it?”. And he'll say, “Uh, yes. I think you should do it in F.” And away we go!

He's stalwart. He's very rhythmic, he can really lean into the piano and give a good performance, too. I get a great support from him always. I think his primary interest was in a little more 1950s and 60s jazz, but he has an affinity for playing behind singers and so I've been very lucky to stumble across him. And your drummer, Glenn Anderson?

Pangman: Glenn's been the on-call for trad bands in Toronto for a lot of years. A great swing player, never steers in the wrong direction, very sympathetic. So as soon as I bring my voice down, and maybe I want to sing a quiet passage, he follows me. He's good – he's like your shadow. But he's always there to support as well.

He and Peter are just a really great team as well. I feel like they're my safety net. They're my swingin' safety net! I particularly liked your CD title, Have a Little Fun [2013]. How did you come up with that?

Pangman: Well, it's a line from one of the songs on the album: “Are you havin' any fun, whatcha gettin' out of livin', what good is what you've got if you're not havin' any fun? Are you havin' any fun? Have a little fun!”

So I'd been through some trials and tribulations with my own health, and so when I got feeling good again, it renewed my vigour and I felt, “Have some fun! You don't know how long you're here for, so have some fun! Have a little fun, everybody! Are you listening? Have a little fun!”

It became a working title. Do you think you're more attracted to upbeat songs like that?

Pangman: I am attracted to songs that are vibrant and have lots of zing in them. Sometimes though ... it depends on my mood, but I'm quite often drawn to more moody and minor key songs. In different points in my career and in my life, those sad songs have brought me some focus and brought me some catharsis.

So sometimes, even though I am very upbeat, I have had some rough times in my life, and sometimes I think there's a few too many minor-key songs. So it was nice to kick off that record with a very positive title: “Have a little fun”. I really liked “My Man Rocks”, the song which closes New. It almost reminded me of Peggy Lee.

Pangman: That's way cool! It's not that different ... [She sings part of “Why don't you do right?”] “You had a plenty money 1922” [and then] “My man rocks” – it's almost the same sort of beat.

I'm trying think of where I first heard “My man rocks”. I think it was on a blues compilation CD that I had. And I was going down to make the record in New Orleans and I knew that we were playing with a really growly, dirty sounding clarinet player, so I thought I'd add a little bit of a dirty song.

I have a bunch of dirty songs up my sleeve, but I've never really recorded them. So we pulled that one out. I looked at the [sheet] music afterwards, I was cleaning up in the studio after we recorded, and the clarinet player had crossed out “Daddy” and written “Mommy”! It was a bit of a fun afternoon.

That one always feels weird to do early in the night. That one goes down a lot better if a) you're not playing in a church or community centre, b) if the lighting is a little bit dark, and c) if it's a little later in the night and people have had a few drinks. Is it an audience pleaser?

Pangman: People generally, believe it or not, really like the naughty songs. And there's such a lot of blue songs like that. It's pretty funny. Somebody suggested I could do another theme record, and I thought I could probably do a whole record of slightly risqué Mae West-type songs. Your latest album, New, was done with American musicians, right?

Pangman: Yes. So it's not your regular band then?

Pangman: No, but it is my band that's been touring the record. We did a cross-Canada tour this summer, and it's neat to have a Northern take on it, too, because the regions are slightly stylistically different.

But I used Americans and I recorded it in America because – what have I got now? Seven records? I don't want each record to sound like the one that came before it. I want there to be a slightly different feel, and there certainly was a difference [with New]. I mean, we didn't have a drummer on New! There's no drummer. The guitar player is going chunk, chunk, chunk. It's a different producer, a different studio, and another instrument – all kind of New! Right? New guys in the band.

I think if you're going to keep making records, you have to make them stand out as different, or else people are going to buy one of your records, and then might not want any more of them, because they all sound the same. Have John MacLeod and Peter Hill and Glenn Anderson been on any of your other records?

Pangman: Peter's been on most of the recent ones. John, I have not yet recorded with, although I'm fairly certain that that is something that will happen in the next record. Glenn has been on the last couple of them. I think Peter's probably the longest colleague. “Fit as a Fiddle” [the song that opens New]: that a reference to your needing to have a double lung transplant?

I'd been through some trials and tribulations with my own health, and so when I got feeling good again, it renewed my vigour and I felt, “Have some fun! You don't know how long you're here for, so have some fun!"
– Alex Pangman

Pangman: [Laughs ruefully] Yes, I think so. That was the other thing about New, that I had new lungs as well. The timeline was I got the lung transplant in about August or September [of 2013] and then I had a celebratory vacation to New Orleans in the December, and then in March [2014] we were down there making a record.

And it was kind of like “You know what? I've always wanted to make a record in New Orleans. I feel fit, as a fiddle! Why don't I just do that? Have a little fun! Seize the day!”

And also kicking it off with a positive song is always a good thing. But it was definitely inspired by my state of health going into this session. I do feel fit as a fiddle.

It certainly was very stressful, but the idea that, if I didn't have it I wouldn't be talking to you now, was totally apparent. Did the transplant affect how you sing or how you sound?

Pangman: Yes, I think positively. For one thing I'm not coughing any more and coughing is very hard on your throat. So I think I'm just a little bit more flexible. My voice is not always angry at me. I've got a lot more gas in the tank, I've got a lot more air that I can sing with. And a lot more control because I'm not always breaking down and coughing and wheezing.

It has been real nice to be able to actualize all the artistic ideas I have in my brain that sometimes were getting stuck before the transplant. I just couldn't make it happen with the material I had in my lungs. Why did you need the two lung transplants?

Pangman: I was born with cystic fibrosis, which is [caused by] a recessive gene. I got the recessive red hair, too. So it's just physically you always have sort of a lung infection all the time and that scars your lungs.

In 2008, those lungs were done and I had the lung transplant. And it served me well for a long time, but then I had rejection.

That was scary – you never thought you'd have to do this twice. So that necessitated a second transplant, which I was super-glad that they were able to do, because they can't always. But I was a candidate. I was very grateful. So in every new town I visit, I like to tell people, “Hey, you can become a hero too.” I always encourage people, Ontarians anyway, to visit . I've seen the changes that it makes and it is pretty cool. What are your future plans?

Pangman: We've wound down for the year. It think it's a good time for me to cocoon and listen to music, maybe dig back into the old shellac and come up with a concept for another album, because that takes a lot of forethought usually and planning. Wintertime is a good time to buckle down and cocoon and listen to stuff, be inspired.

We're wrapping up our busy schedule – I can finally put my suitcase away after Merrickville, for a little while, anyway. We've got some shows a little closer to Toronto, but not too much. I'm looking forward to that. We were so busy this summer doing the festival circuit, it will be good to take a little breather. recently ran a draw for a Merrickville's Jazz Fest pass asking jazz fans who they wanted to see at Merrickville – and your band was mentioned the most.

Pangman: Wow! Well, I don't know if I can take credit for that. I think it's the genre. This is a pretty great and giving era of song.

Classic and traditional music doesn't really go out of style because you're still singing about love and loss and dancing and rocking and drinking – those things don't go away. They don't go out of style, and that's why people find traditional swing really accessible.

Alex Pangman and her Alleycats will perform in the Baldachin Inn Ballroom in Merrickville, on Saturday, October 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, and passes, and more information are available on the website of Merrickville's Jazz Fest.

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