Alex Pangman: An Appreciation
It was on the tiny yet always full dance floor at the revered Reservoir Lounge in early 1999 that this beautiful and energetic strawberry blonde, wearing a timelessly stylish red and white checkered dress, walked right up to me and, in a commanding, confident, yet strikingly lyrical voice, introduced herself. “Hi! I’m Alex Pangman. You sure can dance. Would you like to dance with me? I’d sure like to learn how.” Of course I said yes, cognizant of the fact that I was only a few months ahead of her in my learning process. I tried not to let that show. Much laughter ensued.
It was around that time—on the Rez stage actually—although I can’t remember if it was before or after our dance, that I listened to this young lady sing for the first time. I could hear it. It was undeniable. We were all in the presence of someone special.
Pangman had just finished recording her astoundingly assured debut album, They Say (1999), and was now in the process of showcasing her music live, to an audience that included a gaggle of very appreciative lindy hoppers, including me. It was a week night though, so it was a smaller crowd than usual. That night Alex was also there to socialize, get to know the dancers, and make friends. She bonded with us immediately, as we all loved the same era of music. Alex took this passion to another level though.
At an early age, as she has recounted in many forums before, Alex was drawn to the great swing jazz music of the 1920s and 1930s. She would attend local used record shows, in search of old 78″ records and long players by the likes of Ruth Etting, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five/Seven, Mildred Bailey, Maxine Sullivan, Jack Teagarden, early Ella with Chick Webb, and Kay Starr. She was discovering and gravitating towards artists of that period, artists who spoke to her evolving aesthetic and passions. This only propelled her to continue researching and studying more of the music from that era. Something about the sound drew her in, capturing her heart forever.
Alex may be a conflation of these influences, but her sound is solely her own.
Pangman’s latest album on Justin Time Records is called New (2014), and there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s never sounded better. Alex has always channeled the joy of life in every song she sings, and it is always apparent in her performances. On this new recording, she has assembled a crackerjack band from New Orleans, or rather, Algiers, Louisiana, just over the river from downtown New Orleans.
She has always had a curatorial ear for what makes a song special, and always chooses songs she can inhabit the way a well-made and right-sized glove fits a hand. Snugly.
With every breath she takes, she prepares herself—and the listener—for what comes next: impeccable phrasing and a lyrical tone that reveals her jazz heart. Her evocative style graces each song she chooses to sing. It would be a tad strict and perhaps somewhat inaccurate to call her a pure traditionalist, but she always seems to respect the arrangements and traditions indicative of the era of music to which she is drawn.
One of the key reasons her music resonates with the listener is her ability to connect to the source of what the song is saying, from a lyrical standpoint, yet also from a melodic perspective. From the New album, she reveals a mature feminine swagger in her delivery of the song You Let Me Down. Here Alex transports us into the mind of a woman who has lived what this song is saying in its lyric. It’s quite powerful.
The authenticity generated by the arrangements rendered by Alex and her collaborating musicians—largely because of the choice to remain true to the song construction indicative of the era with which the music was written—makes the music seem timeless. It is in my humble opinion that her interpretations will stand the test of time.
Case in point: her rendition of Stardust, which is from her album Have A Little Fun (2013). A casual listener—or anyone who has ever studied jazz in a deep and meaningful way—will most likely agree that Stardust is one of those rare birds: it is a universally acknowledged “perfect song.” The chord progression is just that, progressive. The words by Mitchell Parish are artfully assembled, and the melody by Hoagy Carmichael is otherworldly in its universal charm and brilliance. There is no need to embellish perfection. Improvising on Stardust more often than not reveals a performer’s limitations, not strengths. Alex Pangman respectfully sings the song pretty much as written. Because she brings her level of experience, craft, and sheer talent to the song, she creates one of her finest recordings to date. It is a song I hope she adds to her live repertoire. For any great singer, Stardust is a song worthy of continuous study, one which will undoubtably—as the song has for so many—take on added meaning for Alex and her audience as the years progress.
One of her best albums is 33 (2011), a warm production collaboration between Pangman and Don Kerr. Within this awesome and astute set of songs are great band arrangements (in some places reminiscent of the collaborative work of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli), a nice duet with Ron Sexsmith on I Surrender Dear (they’re both big Bing Crosby fans), one of the best versions of Honeysuckle Rose around (a live staple for Alex), and a touching ballad written by Alex herself, As Lovely Lovers Do.
Alex also broadens her musical reach on the last Saturday of every month, at the Queen Street West mainstay The Cameron House, singing a song or two with her husband and his Canadian honky tonk band, Colonel Tom Parker and The American Pour.
I was fortunate recently to get to see Alex Pangman and her Alleycats live again at the Dovercourt House in Toronto. I wanted to make sure I picked up a hard copy of her latest album New before the holidays. I’m old school. I like package design. A Christmas present to me. She was wearing a scarlet red dress with no pockets (where to put the cell phone?), she had a full band present and in fine form, and a dance floor full of happy dancers. She sang like an angel on earth. I have never seen her in more command of her strength and power as an artist, and I have seen her perform quite a few times over the years. If you have an opportunity to see her live, do not hesitate, as you will most certainly be rewarded. This woman deserves an international tour.
Alex Pangman is a treasure. She’s something else. She’s the sweetheart of swing. We’re so lucky.
Video for Undecided, by Alex Pangman—a wink and a nod to Bob Dylan’s promo for Subterranean Homesick Blues—from the album Have A Little Fun, featuring Canadian lindy hop legends, Jacqui Oakley and Mark Hart.