Young singer swings with 1930’s jazz

Jazz singer Alex Pangman and her band, the International Swing All Stars, are hanging out at a recording studio in Toronto these days. They’re recording a CD of songs from the 1930’s, some with a western flavour with fiddle solos.

This will be the second CD for this 23-year-old singer, becoming known for her old-fashioned singing style. Pangman says she didn’t study singing or any instrument as a child. In fact, she says, she hated the choir and was no good at musical theory. But something about jazz and swing music from the period of the 1920’s right through the early 40’s appeals to her.

“It’s really wonderful music. I’ll be singing, and I’ll look out, and there’ll be little babies dancing in the front row. Or toddlers, bouncing around and liking it. And there’ll be teenagers,or people in their 20’s or 30’s dancing. And then there’ll be the people who knew this music originally, listening with smiles on their faces. And it’s like, wow, everybody likes this music. It’s pretty special music that way. I could never sit down and listen to Eminem (the rapper) with my grandfather. I don’t think I’d want to. And I’m not the only person in my age bracket who was a little tireof the boom-schump-boom-schump that you hear on the radio. It’s a really wonderful time for this music. There’s a resurgence, for sure.”

Pangman is contributing to this resurgence. The title song of her first CD, They Say, was a 1938 pop tune. It has been getting air play on stations that feature jazz music. And Pangman has appeared at many jazz festivals in different parts of Canada. 

“There’s something really infectious about this music. For example, if you turn on somebody like Fats Waller, you know you’re in for a good time. Your toe is going to start tapping, you’re going to start smiling. It just seems to be such a free flowing form of human expression. It’s like-either we’re having a good time and we’re having a party, or we’re having the blues and we’re making it sound good,” she says.

Back-up musicians
A good part of “making it sound good” is due to her talented back-up musicians. The International Swing All Stars are truly an international cast of accomplished musicians. They’re led by Canadian blues guitarist and trumpet player Jeff Healey, who also is the CD producer. The bass player is Canadian, Colin Bray. Steve Mellon, from Britain, plays clarinet. John Royan, based in New Orleans, is the pianist. The drummer is Steve Torrico from Florida. Richard Sudhalter, from New York, also plays trumpet. Each player has solo moments on They Say.

“When we went into the studio, we did it the way they would’ve in 1937. We set up a few mikes, and we pressed record. And there are clinkers. But it was live, and it’s real. We didn’t do overdubbing at all, it was-press, record. The main reason we did it that way was because we wanted the performances to seem very alive. And we thought when you get into tracking, it still sounds really good in the end, but we wanted it to be as organic as we could make it.”

Pangman laughs when she says the word “organic”, but it’s a good way to describe the old-fashioned sound of the CD. Without the technical studio tricks and overdubbing, the emphasis is on musical performance. This group of musicians cooks with songs popular seventy years ago, but not heard that often in the current resurgence of interest in older jazz. An example is the song One Hundred Percent for You, which Alex saw performed in a musical short by Ina Ray Hutton with her “all girl” orchestra. The guitar and vocal take the first chorus, then the band comes in to shape the rest of the song.

Karaoke start
Pangman says she grew up in Mississauga, listening to country music after she grew tired of singers like Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. Then she discovered jazz.

“When I was 16, a group of friends and I were at a banquet hall for a party, and they had a karaoke machine. So I got up to sing with a few of my friends. My friend’s dad was a guitar player in a jazz band. And he said, would you like to come and sing with my band? And I was like, well, I do like to sing, but that sounds scary. Once I got my first song behind me, then they started saying, you sound a bit like Annette Hanshaw, or you should listen to Louis Armstrong, and I was hooked. And ever since, I’ve just been listening and learning, because I had a lot to catch up on.”

Likes Annette Hanshaw
Pangman has a particular affection for Annette Hanshaw, a well-known vocalist from the mid 1920’s to ’30’s. Love Me Tonight and Here We Are and Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home are all songs from Hanshaw’s repertoire performed by Pangman on the CD. 

“She was really sweet, and honest. And she could swing when she wanted to. Whereas Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were doing it off the top of the head, I think Annette Hanshaw had gone through things and planned them more. So she would usually sing a chorus through straight, and then, on her out chorus, she would play with it and bounce it and swing it-before swing was really the term to describe it. So she was a bit more organized in her improvisations. If you listen to different takes that she did, they would be very similar. But if you listen to Louis Armstrong play a song a few times through, they’re so different each time,” analyses Pangman.

What’s next
Annette Hanshaw also started singing at the same age as Alex Pangman-when she was 16 years old. And then, Hanshaw retired when she was 23, the same age Pangman is now. So will Pangman follow further in Hanshaw’s footsteps?

“No, I’ll do this as long as people want to hear me make music. And I can go on and make records and records, because I’m picking from the best period of song writing I think there is. I’m an anachronism,” says Pangman.

In the studio these days, Pangman, producer Healey and the other musicians are recording a new series of old time hits. One song will be new-a ballad written by Pangman called Melancholy Lullaby. Pangman says it’s done with two guitars and a bass, gypsy guitar style. It’s also the theme for a Canadian-made movie coming out in the spring.

At that point, Pangman says she’ll likely do some touring to publicize her new-and yet unnamed-CD. It doesn’t seem that an early retirement is in this performer’s future.