ALEX PANGMAN AND HER ALLEYCATS CD release party at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Tuesday (December 12), 8:30 pm. $10; $49 (dinner package). 416-588-0307. Rating: NNNNN
There's no shortage of Christmasy recordings lining the retail shelves at the moment, so anyone determined to add one more to the pile better have a new twist for folks to take notice.
Canada's sweetheart of swing Alex Pangman is up for the challenge, and the sultry-voiced jazz crooner's crazy cool Christmas Gift (Real Gone Gal) has the sleighbell ring of a Yuletide classic that could be a sentimental favourite for holidays to come.
Opening with a radical revision of Jingle Bells juiced with some tasty trumpet work from Alleycat horn man Kevin Clark and strutting through a joyously bouncing New Orleans-style take of Winter Wonderland, Pangman's Christmas Gift, you quickly realize, isn't going to be your typical snooze through the tired old standards.
Along with her snazzy rearragements of the seasonal faves like the Boswell Sisters-inspired rip through I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus with gal pal Terra Hazelton, Pangman has dusted off some lesser-known delights like Julia Lee's bluesy Christmas Spirits and Dick Robertson's I Want You For Christmas, which fit perfectly with the swing scorcher's straight-outta-the-30s aesthetic.
"This whole project started while watching television around Christmastime last year," explains Pangman. "There were all these over-the-top commercials saying, 'Buy this,' 'Buy that,' 'Buy! buy! buy!' But along with the sales pitch, I heard a tune that sounded vaguely familiar in the background of one spot, with what sounded like Kay Starr singing, and just I love Kay Starr.
"So I checked through my record collection - I've got a lot of old 78s - and sure enough, it was Kay Starr's The Man With The Bag. So I started looking for more great Christmas songs that I'd forgotten about and found a version of I Want You For Christmas by Mae Questel (the voice of Betty Boop) and Patti Page's Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, which are both great. Pretty soon there was a long list of songs for the holidays that I thought might make for an interesting Christmas record in that 1930s style I love."
For most other artists, the difficult task would then be trying to assemble a group of session musicians to give the songs an authentic sense of swing without it coming off like a stodgy old Lawrence Welk or Guy Lombardo session. Fortunately, Pangman already has an elite group of heady improvisers in her Alleycats who know the score and have chops to burn.
"I realize how truly blessed I am to have such a fantastic group of players who really understand the classic jazz idiom. When they play that music, they really inhabit it. With those guys, it's not a matter of 'Here's an Artie Shaw lick' or 'How about a little Louis Armstrong?' They all know that stuff, of course, but they invest so much of themselves in whatever they do, it makes the past seem... present."
The other advantage of having her own band in the studio is that all of the musicians who appear on the Christmas Gift album can play the release party at Lula Lounge Tuesday (December 12), which features guest appearances by Terra Hazelton and Tory Cassis, who'll reprise his sweet duet with Pangman on Baby It's Cold Outside. It promises to be a memorable evening, but Pangman hopes that the real spirit of season isn't overlooked.
"While I was thinking about doing a Christmas record and watching all those commercials with people trying to sell stuff, I began to consider more deeply what Christmas means to me and the whole spirit of giving. There was an article I'd read about a girl who'd just received an organ transplant and was writing a letter to thank them the family she didn't know because their son saved her life by donating his organs when he died.
"Finding out that a person dies every three days in Ontario waiting for an organ transplant made me want to do something about it. So I thought that including organ donor cards with each copy of the Christmas Gift CD was the least I could do to help raise awareness of this issue."