Although I am of a certain age to recall fondly my record player with tinny speakers and my spindle of 45’s (borrowed, I admit, from my older sister), I sadly came to my love of music after the era of 78’s. Alex Pangman, Canada’s “sweetheart of swing,” has resurrected that era in her latest project, “Alex Pangman’s Hot Three” – a six-song collection recorded directly to 78 last summer in New Orleans.
Apart from the technical impressiveness of using this kind of resurrected technology and the performance immediacy necessitated by recording live (lose the take, you lose a side of the vinyl!), this is a superb set of songs that opens with the familiar (to readers my age and over, at least) crackle of needle on vinyl and the swinging delight of “Sweethearts on Parade.” All six songs are a delight, with Alex’s terrific voice soaring above the virtuosity of her band.
Even if you aren’t familiar with Alex Pangman’s work, or if you think you aren’t a fan of jazz or swing music, I encourage you to give this album a listen – not to appreciate the accomplishment of recording such terrific performances live to vinyl (although you should), but to enjoy a slice of some of our best musical history brought to vibrant life by a fabulously talented singer.
I’m thrilled that Alex took some time to talk to us about the album.
For reasons too complicated to explain, I found myself describing the process you used to record this album to one of my music students recently… as someone living in a purely digital age, I think it all seemed a bit strange to her. ☺ What inspired you to return to the roots of recorded music in this way?
I started collecting records in my teens. Even then they seemed like antiquities, so I can’t imagine how the digital youth generation perceive them today, but the energy and honesty of the performances on them spoke to me from the get go. Stories of Fats Waller rolling into a studio after an all nighter and going live to wax entranced me, and I’ve always found a certain special energy about “old records”…. by making this EP live to a turntable that was cutting the groove at 78 rpms before our eyes, it helped me understand the conditions and feelings that the early recorded jazz masters would have had, through adopting some of the ingredients of those iconic sessions.
(I didn’t pull an all nighter, but) we didn’t use head phones, we weren’t baffled off from one another, there was nothing modern about the recording process, and there were no luxuries offered such as post production studio fixes or editing. It was just one microphone and the truth… and a lot of inspiration! It truly made the adrenaline pump when the groove would begin to cut and I counted off the tune. I’ve rarely felt this inspired to perform in a modern recording studio.
In listening to the album, I keep coming back to “You’ve Got the Right Key, but the Wrong Keyhole” – not only for your terrific singing but also its terrifically clever lyrics. I spent some time reading about the history of the song and about Virginia Liston, who was apparently the first to record it. When you add songs to your repertoire, are you drawn by the songs themselves, the history behind them, or some combination of the two?
Often a combination, but I’m usually initially inspired because I’ve heard a performance that really spoke to me. The internet has made sourcing tunes and their back-stories quite easy, plus I have a large collection of jazz recording liner notes and books that I enjoy mining for tidbits. Keyhole is not unlike a lot of double entendre, slightly risqué songs of the early blues (and jazz) genre. When a late-night set rolls around, there’s nothing better than pulling out something saucy (which kind of inspired our cover art on this album.) Something bluesy and bawdy. I absolutely love the history of these tunes and artists, & sometimes I let people in on their backstories, and sometimes I just let the song speak for itself. (I heard Carol Leigh sing this song when I was just staring out, she likely got it from the Clarence Williams /Virginia Listen version. It’s kind of like a folk music…. we keep passing it along down the line.)
You’ve probably answered questions about your lung transplants way too many times, but I’m curious to know how surgeries like that have affected your singing technique, breath control, and such?
While I love the music of the 1920s and 30s, I’m glad I wasn’t born then, purely because there were little or no treatments for Cystic Fibrosis. Diagnosed in infancy, I grew up with a slight handicap breathing, with the doctors’ encouragement that singing was good for me. My illness got predictably worse as I aged, providing significant technical difficulties for both my singing career & my survival, eventually requiring a full double lung transplant. I went from having scarred, shrivelled up lungs before transplant, to after surgery having two lovely big lungs that fill with air and lift my voice into song. It is great to be able to sing long notes again, to sing breathy tones (impossibly difficult pre transplant), fully dynamic / loud notes built on a normal lung capacity, etc.
One of the great gifts of transplant is that I rarely cough now, and my throat loves that! I used to cough *hundreds* of times a day, (very hard on the voice) and in the months leading up to transplant I felt like I was drowning. For the first time in my career, transplant enabled me the ability to emote and sing what I hear in my heart and head without having to deal with lungs that were betraying me. Transplant truly is the gift of life, and I encourage everyone to consider becoming an organ donor hero, outliving themselves, and helping save someone’s life. One donor can save up to 8 lives and enhance many others. Visit your local DMV or in Canada visit liveon.ca to find out how to sign up in your province.
I happened to hear your interview on Eric Alper’s Sirius/XM radio show, and in it he asked you how comfortable you are to be titled “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing.” Apart from your tremendous musical talent, it also seems to me that you’re also keeping a tradition and genre of music alive for younger generations for whom it’s distant history. (I was so crushed when Sirius/XM banished their “40’s on 4” station down the dial – it seemed like such a blow for pop music of that era.) How do you see your role not only as a musician but also as an educator of sorts?
My role? It’s not so much a historian as this project makes me sound! My role as performer is to inhabit these songs and to demonstrate that they are just as vibrant and meaningful today as they were when they were written. Songs about love, loss, dancing, celebration, sorrow, sex, getting high, or drunk don’t ever go out of style. If you think this music is for old folks, think again. Armstrong was a young lion when he made his powerful first records, same goes for Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Kayy Starr, the lot of them. That being said, jazz is also a musical idiom in which an artist is allowed to mature, take for example Duke Ellington whose career ran the gamut from the hotsy totsy Cotton Club period, to the refined and finely drawn music of his later age. My role, I suppose, is to express the human condition through jazz music.
Hopefully hearing your album will spur listeners on not only to listen to your other work, but also to explore music from the actual era from which these songs come. Are there three or four singers who have inspired you, who you would recommend to fans who perhaps are just getting to know this genre of music?
Young Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters of the 1930s, Kay Starr with Joe Venuti, Bing Crosby from the early years. I suppose the top four would differ depending on what day you asked me, but those four are some very good singers.
Are there any shows on your calendar where folks can come hear some of these tunes?
We play the first Thursday of every month at Toronto’s Reservoir Lounge, and have done for years. I basically grew up on that stage and so it’s a good one to come see us at, feeling at home and comfortable.