Diana Panton: Canadian songbird carries on the tradition

    The soft-toned Canadian singer recalls Peggy Lee, Lee Wiley or Blossom Dearie, her quiet intensity and subtle swing making more out of less

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    Canada is likely not the first place that comes up when conversation turns to jazz singers. Yet since Holly Cole and Diana Krall captured hearts in the 80s and 90s, this vast northern land has produced its share of engaging songbirds: Susie Arioli, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Biali, Nikki Yanofsky and Russian-born Sophie Milman have all sparked a buzz among their fans.

    One who stands out from this group is soft-toned Diana Panton. Though she cites Ella, Billie and Sarah for inspiration, apt comparisons include Peggy Lee, Lee Wiley, or Blossom Dearie, singers who showed how less can indeed be more in creating an emotional impact. The Hamilton, Ontario native does the same with quiet intensity, subtle swing, nuance, natural musicality, reliable intonation and a singular purity of voice. (As to the last point, Jo Stafford springs to mind.)

    Legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan said of Panton’s artistry: “Diana makes each song sound so real and her voice is like the sweetest bird you’ll ever hear.” To these qualities, add immaculate phrasing and diction – every word clearly audible in both English and French – along with superior taste in choosing and presenting songs, and you have an ideal candidate to carry on the grand yet sweet tradition of the Great American Songbook and beyond.

    And dare I draw a parallel with Francis Albert himself? While Diana’s youthful wide-eyed grappling with the vagaries of love may seem a distant remove from the Chairman’s near-suicidal displays of loss and longing, close inspection reveals similarities. Take her debut album Yesterday Perhaps (2005). On it she tackles several torchy ballads associated with the celebrated singer, ending with In the Wee Small Hours, a song Sinatra practically owns. Likewise, her cycle of moon and star tunes, If The Moon Turns Green (2006), contains three numbers Frank sang on his classic Moonlight Sinatra 40 years earlier. These include Oh, You Crazy Moon, another definitive Sinatra performance. Remarkably, she pulls off the feat, investing these familiar standards with sufficient passion to reveal their emotional core while reminding older and convincing newer listeners of their timeless appeal.

    ‘When I sing, I try to put myself in service to the song’

    Pondering this conceivably far-fetched coupling, I emailed her and asked about it. She responded: “My dad is a big Sinatra fan. He has the 10-inch record of In the Wee Small Hours. I first sang it at a workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts. When it came time to record my first album, I wanted to include it. I love Frank’s version of this song; however, I thought it would be interesting to interpret it from a woman’s perspective.” 

    And just as Ol’ Blue Eyes had a great collaborator in Nelson Riddle, Diana has ideal partners for her style in the duo of versatile guitarist Reg Schwager and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Don Thompson (bass, piano, vibes). These distinguished players have appeared on every one of her recordings to date. Says Diana: “It is a tremendous blessing to be working with Reg and Don. We love many of the same songs and there is an unspoken understanding between us about how the music should sound. Since the first recording everything felt right.”

    Key to the success of such spare accompaniment is Thompson’s sensitive arranging and effective use of overdubbing. Alternating backing by both musicians, by one or the other, or by Don overdubbed on two – or even three – instruments, the charts ensure variety across Diana’s recorded legacy. At times, the voicings recall the classic Shearing quintet sound, not surprising as both Thompson and Schwager worked with the piano master. Even with a guest soloist in the mix – Guido Basso on trumpet or Phil Dwyer on saxophone, for example – the overall sound remains intimate, keeping the emphasis securely on Diana’s disarmingly diaphanous voice.

    Don Thompson has been vital to Panton’s career from the beginning. Inspired to sing by an Ella Fitzgerald record she discovered in her father’s LP collection, the 19-year-old was heard by Thompson performing with a youth orchestra in Hamilton. Impressed, he recommended she apply to the jazz workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts. At Banff, Diana sharpened her skills with established singers Norma Winstone, Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. Jordan in particular helped mentor her rapid development.

    After Banff, musical pursuits temporarily gave way to studies in French language and literature and student teaching duties in Paris and Canada. Eventually Panton launched her full-time teaching career in her hometown, a position she holds to this day. She began performing and recording on the side, scheduling studio work on weekends or during school breaks.

    Despite constraints, Diana’s recordings are carefully conceived, with a pleasing look and sound. They are largely self-produced, the singer taking a major role in each step of a given project. From roughly 100 song titles, she narrows the list down in a lengthy process of elimination. She explains: “The final cut from 20 to the final track list is always the hardest for me since I have usually bonded quite strongly with these tunes by that point. Don decides the best keys, we discuss instrumentation and he prepares his magical arrangements. We record.” She makes the final selection of which takes to use and weighs in at editing, mixing and mastering phases as well. She also takes a hand in the design and layout, working closely with the graphic artist.

    Most of her albums are built around themes. In addition to those already mentioned, she has recorded a bossa-nova collection (To Brazil With Love), a sublime seasonal tribute Christmas Kiss, and Solstice/Equinox (2017), based on the theme of the changing seasons. As further evidence of her artistry, her thematic decisions are guided in part by the natural maturing process. Consider her explanation for the two albums titled pink and RED (the latter a 2015 Juno winner): “As for pink, I was attracted to many winsome love songs and I worried that as I got older, they might not suit my voice, so I opted to put them altogether on one album. When I decided on pink for the title, I knew there would be a RED album. I knew RED would have a mature theme and would suit a more seasoned voice, so I opted to record two albums in between.”

    Like her older soul sister in song, Rebecca Kilgore, Diana is a tune sleuth. Like Rebecca, she performs extensive research and attempts to find original sheet music. She also has exceptional taste. One of her discoveries is a forgotten Harry Warren gem called A Little Boy, A Little Girl, A Little Moon, included on her album of moon songs. Says Diana: “It was written in 1927 and I don’t think it had ever been recorded, so it was nice to bring that song back to life.” (*See note below.) With a lyric by Robert King, the song tells the familiar tale of love and marriage in clever fashion with basic one-or-two-word images. It elicits a smile whenever I hear it.

    Diana switched gears a bit in 2014 with the release of I Believe In Little Things, a dreamy collection of songs of wonder and imagination aimed at children. A positive response led to a follow-up, A Cheerful Little Earful (2019). On the motivation for these sets: “I received several emails from parents telling me how they used certain songs from my albums to help put their kids to bed. Since these particular songs seemed to appeal to both kids and their parents, this planted the seed to create an entire album of songs that would be lyrically appropriate for younger audiences.”

    And the qualities Diana finds attractive in a song? “When I first started singing, it was melody that drew me to a song. However, as I moved more into thematic albums, the emphasis shifted towards lyrics. That said, I still love a beautiful melody and coupled with a great lyric you have a winning combination . . . When I sing, I try to put myself in service to the song. I try to figure out what the composer / lyricist was trying to convey and how I can tell that story through my own experiences.”

    A new recording is due sometime in 2022. As with the others, Reg and Don will be on hand, and perhaps a guest musician or two. Whatever the theme, Diana’s fans know to expect a finely crafted affair that honours the tradition with freshness and quiet passion. And while she may place herself in service to the songs, rest assured she will also present them as only Diana Panton does, telling stories she alone can tell.

    *Two additional recordings are by Hal Kemp and Billy Bartholomew’s Delphians, featuring a vocal by that class crooner, Al Bowlly, recorded in Berlin in 1928. The composition date of 1927 is unconfirmed.