Are you having any fun? When Alex Pangman is singing, a resounding ‘yes’ is the only possible answer to that query posed by the Sammy Fain/Jack Yellen classic. With legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli on board for Pangman’s latest, the merriment comes all the easier.
Have a Little Fun (Justin Time) finds the young Toronto chanteuse doing just that on a baker’s dozen of swing era standards and originals penned in the same vintage style. Along with Pizzarelli, a seven-decade veteran who’s played with Les Paul, Benny Goodman, and Stephane Grappelli, Pangman is joined by her long-running band, The Alleycats.
Since her teens, Pangman has earned a devoted following in her native Canada, garnering three National Jazz Award nominations, twice as “Jazz Vocalist of the Year” and once for “Best Original Song,” and she has performed three showcases at the renowned Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
The carefree attitude expressed in that title has been earned in part through Pangman’s lifelong struggle with lung disease, which culminated in a successful double lung transplant in 2008. “I was born with lung disease so I’ve always had that perspective,” she says, “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.”
Have a Little Fun came together quickly, when Pangman learned that Pizzarelli would be performing in her hometown of Toronto. Despite a half-century’s difference in their ages, the two quickly bonded over their shared love of 1930s song. “He’s in his eighties and I’m in my thirties,” Pangman says, “but we quickly became friends because we both love these melodies and these songs. That lineage is what binds us together. I was a little intimidated at first, but he’s laid-back and always has a twinkle in his eye. He tells stories about his grandchildren, but then he can tell stories about Frank Sinatra.”
That comfort and easy camaraderie resulted in seven songs recorded during a breezy three-hour studio session, a behind-the-scenes snapshot of which closes the album. The pair is joined by violinist Drew Jurecka, and devised arrangements on the fly. They chose standards like “I’m Confessin”, “Out of Nowhere”, and “Stardust”, while Pizzarelli was also attracted to some of Pangman’s original tunes. He plays on her noirish “Melancholy Lullaby,” originally written for Torso, a film about infamous Canadian murderer Evelyn Dick, who achieved legendary status akin to Lizzy Borden in the States. The song earned her a “Best Original Song” nomination from the National Jazz Awards in 2001.
The remainder of the album features Pangman’s band The Alleycats, which she’s performed with in one form or another for more than a dozen years. The band, highlighted by Ross Wooldridge’s tenor and clarinet, Laurie Bower’s trombone, and Brigham Phillips’ trumpet, captures the frantic essence of Fats Wallers’ “The Panic Is On,” the sultry exotic allure of “Shanghai Lil,” and the lively swing of “Undecided.”
The Alleycats also prove an ideal foil for Pangman’s considerable compositional skills, with Bower’s melancholy moaning on the mournful “Fog Song,” and the raucous interplay of “Topsy Turvy,” a novelty number about the dizzying effects of romance. They also made the unfaithful lover’s lament “It Felt So Good To Be So Bad” so convincing that Pangman’s husband wondered if he had cause for worry. (“Just One More Chance” follows as a tender apology.)
Born in 1976, Pangman is several generations removed from the musical era of Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong, but she never felt drawn to the sounds of her own time. “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,” she says. “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.”
She first discovered country music, which shares a penchant for melody and storytelling with the swing era songs she soon discovered. An avid equestrian, Pangman met her first mentor at the stables where she rode as a teenager. “As it turns out, he was a guitar player in a traditional jazz band and was very generous with lending me records and exposing me to this music that not a lot of other sixteen-year-olds were listening to. It was through his kindness that I was exposed to a landslide of wonderful, vibrant, alive music.”
Pangman quickly became a passionate record collector herself, garnering an impressive collection of wax from the 1920s and ’30s. Her gorgeous voice and deft song styling soon caught the ear of the late guitar great Jeff Healey, who produced Pangman’s first two albums. It wasn’t long before she was christened “Canada’s Sweetheart of Swing,” a title threatened when her cystic fibrosis began to compromise her ability to sing. A donor was fortuitously located, and she came back from her double lung transplant with her 2011 disc 33.
“In the months before the surgery, it was like I’d been singing through a straw,” she recalls. “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.”
She has since become a tireless advocate for organ and tissue donation in Canada, recently writing the song “Breathe In” and donating the proceeds from its sale to the Ontario Lung Association.
Since the surgery, Pangman says, Have a Little Fun has taken hold as “my mantra in life. You can have a million smackers and a fancy car, but if you’re not having any fun, what’s the point? You’re not here forever, so try to enjoy yourself.”