DIANA PANTON at the Red Guitar (603 Markham), Thursday and Friday (February 2 and 3). $7. 416-913-4586. www.dianapanton.com Rating: NNNNN
Hamilton - Could the hottest young jazz singing prospect in Canada be a high school French teacher in Hamilton?
Sure, it seems crazy, and having grown up in the Steel City myself just increases my skepticism. But once you hear Diana Panton breathe new life into familiar standards and make Frank Sinatra's closing-time classic In The Wee Small Hours into her own private lullaby, you'll realize, as I have, that there's something very special about this Westdale Secondary School staffer.
Panton's remarkably polished self-released debut disc, ...Yesterday Perhaps, doesn't sound like the work of a novice. Her poise and control are more typical of veteran stylists of a generation past than of any of her more famous 20-something contemporaries.
From the soulfully self-assured interpretations of the well-chosen ballad repertoire to the elegantly understated accompaniment provided by veteran sidemen Don Thompson and Reg Schwager, right down to the track sequencing that makes for a perfectly paced set, everything about the recording points to the work of a seasoned professional.
The aesthetic choices she makes are too astute, too tasteful and just too darn on-the-money for a rookie. Unlike many young singers who feel the need to show off their technique with dramatic melodic twists and frequent melismatic flourishes, Panton takes a more mature, measured approach relying on subtle tonal shading and and her captivating conversational phrasing to better convey the essential meaning of the songs.
"What one musician said he found different about the way I sing," offers Panton from across the table at a coffee shop packed with chatty laptop-tapping McMaster students, "was that he doesn't hear any influence of contemporary pop music.
"I guess that's true, because I never really paid much attention to what my friends were listening to. Even when I was little, I used to make up my own songs - mostly sad things about nature or animals - and sing them to myself on the way home from school or whenever I was alone.
"At home, my dad was really particular about what sort of music was played, so I heard a lot of classical stuff and a little jazz, but only instrumental music - no vocals at all. Then one day I heard some singing and was shocked, like, 'Who's that?'
"He said, 'You like this? It's Ella Fitzgerald. Check these out...', and he hauled out some of his old 10-inch records I'd never seen before. I put them on and immediately began singing along. Somehow, the way Ella's voice sounded made it easy for me to follow her. That was it. I was hooked."
Eager to explore her newfound passion, Panton enrolled in a summer jazz camp and attended classes conducted by Montreal-based jazz great Ranee Lee, which indirectly led to Panton's first performing gig as a vocalist with the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band.
"I didn't actually make the cut the first time I tried out. I had to audition three times, and when I came back the third time they let me do a song of my choice. I remembered a song I'd heard Ranee Lee sing in a workshop, so I asked if I could sing Tis Autumn a cappella, and that's what finally got me in. I still love singing a cappella. I guess it's like singing by myself when I was younger."
Signing Panton proved to be a shrewd move for the Hamilton youth orchestra. Local audiences grew 10-fold during her decade-long tenure belting out big-band standards alongside rising star pianist David Braid, which culminated in performances at the prestigious Juan-les-Pins Festival in France and the 2000 Montreux Fesitval in Switzerland.
It was at a show back in Hamilton that veteran Canuck jazz pianist/bassist Don Thompson got blindsided by Panton's exceptional talent, and he's since become an important mentor and collaborator.
"What initially impressed me about Diana," recalls Thompson, "was that she had a really powerful stage presence and a way of communcating directly with the audience that's unusual for such a young singer. I was knocked out by her spirit and the excitement she brought to the big-band material she was doing with that powerhouse 20-piece orchestra.
"So I was shocked when I heard her sing the gentle ballads you hear on her album. It was a whole different side of her that I'd never really known existed. That just shows you, Diana's got all the bases covered."
Thompson claims that while he and long-time guitarist sidekick Reg Schwager were providing Panton with the pared-down accompaniment for the impressive selection of slow-burn ballads that make up ...Yesterday Perhaps, he actually learned a few things from Panton, who produced the sessions.
"I've been doing this for some time now, and I've worked with a number of singers over the years, but she was coming up with some great material I've never heard before. And even with the songs I knew, she'd sing a verse that I didn't know existed. She's really meticulous in researching lyrics and melodies, so if there's a lost verse to a song, she'll find it.
"And for someone who'd never been in a studio before, I was amazed at how confident she was during the recording. We'd run through the changes and then do a take, and she'd say, 'Yep, that sounds good,' and we'd be on to the next tune. She's very secure within herself, and extremely honest. There's absolutely no jive about her."
While she has undoubtedly learned numerous useful lessons in workshops with jazz greats like Norma Winstone, Sheila Jordan and Dr. Yusef Lateef - each of whom has nothing but praise for Panton - the classroom is no substitute for the bandstand and Panton needs to get out in front of paying audiences.
Booking herself one weekend gig every three months during the school year - she's her own manager, agent or publicist - and picking up a few festival dates in the summer should suffice as an introduction, but Panton will soon need to make some hard decisions about her future as a French teacher once her singing secret gets out.
"I've never really thought much about the performance aspect of what I do," says Panton. "It's more of an intuitive process for me. The music is the most important thing so I'm not that demonstrative onstage. If I started thinking about what I was doing with my hands while I was singing, it would probably take me out of the song.
"I'm not really what might be called an entertainer. I don't even consider myself a singer, but, rather, a person who sings. For me it's all about communicating an emotion or a feeling in an honest way.
"In a sense, I'm still that girl singing songs to herself."
What's in a song?
Diana Panton showed impeccable taste in the song choices she made for her self-produced debut disc, …Yesterday Perhaps. She then dug deep to find the complete original lyrics, as the composer intended them to be sung. Here are a few of her faves.
I'm A Fool To Want You
(Joel Herron, Frank Sinatra, Jack Wolf) "I've always loved the original version of that Frank Sinatra song he recorded just after his breakup with Ava Gardner. The pain of that whole situation comes through in the lyrics. I'd never sung it before going into the studio, but I thought I'd give it a shot. It's good to challenge yourself like that now and then."
You Hit The Spot
(Mack Gordon) "Uptempo tunes that feel right for me have always been difficult to find, so when I come across one, I remember it. I first heard this sung by Ella Fitzgerald on her Ella Swings Lightly album, and I searched in libraries everywhere for the 1935 sheet music with no luck. Finally, it came up for auction on eBay - and thankfully, I won it."
Les Feuilles Mortes
(Jacques Prévert, Joseph Kosma)
"I've never sung Autumn Leaves, because the English lyrics adapted by Johnny Mercer never appealed to me. Jacques Prévert's original French lyrics are just gorgeous and totally different. Of course, I had to record the French version."
This Is Always
(Harry Warren, Mack Gordon) "I fell in love with this song the first time I heard it on Chet Baker Sings And Plays. The lyrics are beautiful, and it's got a memorable melody. It happens to be one of Sheila Jordan's favourites, too."
Plus Je T'Embrasse
(Ben Ryan, Max François) "After doing a show in France, a couple of people mentioned that I reminded them of Blossom Dearie. At the time, I didn't know her work, but I checked it out and loved everything about her. Plus Je T'Embrasse is from her Give Him The Ooh-La-La album."
You'd Better Go Now
(Bickley Reichner, Robert Graham) "This Billie Holiday song has been in my book for ages. Everything she sings tells a story. 'You have to go but I want you to stay.' That says it all. Being truthful within the lyric of a song is very important to me."