“In Alex Pangman’s musical world, hot tunes flow like bathtub gin in a back-alley speakeasy. She roars through a repertoire of vintage swing and blues, possessed by the coltish spirit of a young Mildred Bailey or Ella Fitzgerald.” —The Montreal Gazette
Jazz tends to attract those who stand out from the crowd. Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing, Alex Pangman, is no exception.
Back when she went to high school, everyone was into 1980-90s music. Not her. Nineteen-thirties swing jazz was more Pangman’s thing. “You’ve got three minutes on one side of a 78 with no overdubbing, no auto-tune, just really good music and beautiful lyrics. I wasn’t hearing that in the music I grew up with. I didn’t want to hear Paula Abdul, so I started flipping around the dial.”
In short order, she quickly made a name for herself in Canada as the Sweetheart of Swing with several successful albums, notably her 2011 release, “33” — lovingly devoted to that era — right after a double-lung transplant.
Her June 11, 2013 follow-up on Justin Time Records, “Have A Little Fun,” continues the 1930s swing jazz love affair quite nicely. Grouped with guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, violinist Drew Jurecka, and her ever-faithful Alleycats band, Pangman fairly skips through swing era standards and original compositions with a frothy twang.
Pangman expertly sings standards like “I’m Confessin’,” “Some Of These Days,” “Shanghai Lil,” “Stardust,” and the title track as if she were born to the era. Her own compositions could’ve easily been written in the 1930s, including “Melancholy Lullaby” — a tune for the Torso In 2001 soundtrack that garnered her a National Jazz Awards’ “Best Original Song” nomination.
The underlying tone of the album is one of fun and gratitude. This is a young woman who got a new lease on life and isn’t going to waste it. Born with lung disease and cystic fibrosis, Pangman nevertheless tries always to look on the bright side, because she’s been through the dark.
She was also born with some pipes, which has been her saving grace. “…I’ve always had that perspective, but it’s been freshly reinvigorated. Life is precious, and if you sit around with your gut in a twist, it’s really not worth it.”
“The music my friends were listening to when I was in high school was the antithesis of this music that I love so much now. You’ve got three minutes on one side of a 78 with no overdubbing, no auto-tune, just really good music and beautiful lyrics. I wasn’t hearing that in the music I grew up with. I didn’t want to hear Paula Abdul, so I started flipping around the dial.” —Alex Pangman
Progressively, singing became harder and harder to pull off until the 2008 double-lung surgery. “In the months before the surgery, it was like I’d been singing through a straw. Then all of a sudden it was as if somebody handed me a bullhorn, like going from a tricycle to a Ferrari. Replace those lungs, and I could sing the lines and emote the way I was hearing it in my head and in my heart,” Pangman explained. An advocate for organ and tissue donation, having written “Breathe In” for the Ontario Lung Association, the relief and release could audibly be felt in her subsequent recordings and in live performances.
The jubilation that comes from second chances is all over this album. Just listen to “Undecided,” lively horns and vivacious vocals brimming over with contagious good cheer. Kudos to the Alleycats’ clarinetist Ross Wooldridge for keeping up with Pangman. Her lovely laugh at the end and at the beginning of “Intro: Some Of These Days” says it all.
The last song, “Intro: Some Of These Days,” gives some insight into the spontaneity in the rearrangements picked up on by the group throughout. This isn’t a buttoned-up stodgy affair.
“Some Of These Days” just thrills as Pangman, Pizzarelli and Jurecka gallop along at breakneck pace, with a wink and a smile. The star of this piece is Pizzarelli, who puts a charmingly new, raucous spin on an oft-performed standard.
“The Panic Is On” epitomizes the 1930s ragtime swing, continuing the fast-moving swirl of horns, guitar, and reeds. This is a solid, rolling, jazz-worthy body of music.
Pangman pulls out every note of emotion in “Just One More Chance,” especially in the chorus. Proving she does understand the 1930s swing jazz era, the singer earnestly, luxuriously lays herself all over the musical fabric.
Somehow, Pangman pulls off “It Felt So Good To Be So Bad” — her own composition — without trying too hard for the sexpot factor (take note, blues singers). She slips in the old-fashioned jargon (“It felt so good when you were pitching me the woo”) without sounding old fashioned in the least. She embodies the character of a mysterious seductress, yet without an ounce of shadiness. Besotted but not dirty. Quite a feat.
The same playful notes covering all of her 14 songs come to life in another original, the cutie-pie charmer, “Topsy Turvy.” Scattering 1930s like so much New Year’s Eve confetti, Pangman elevates the simple jargon of that time (“the dogs meow and the cats all go bow wow”) with a knowing, contemporary inflection, lifting this rag-tag number into something infinitely repeatable.
Alex Pangman’s “Have A Little Fun” does just that.