Diana Panton: the Canadian songbird continues the tradition
Canada is probably not the first place to come back when the conversation turns to jazz singers. Yet since Holly Cole and Diana Krall won hearts in the ’80s and’ 90s, this vast Nordic land has produced its share of endearing songbirds: Susie Arioli, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Laila Biali, Nikki Yanofsky and the Russian Sophie Milman have all sparked a buzz among their fans.
One that stands out from this group is Diana Panton in soft tones. Although she cites Ella, Billie and Sarah as inspiration, suitable comparisons include Peggy Lee, Lee Wiley or Blossom Dearie, singers who have shown how much less can indeed be more to create emotional impact. The Hamilton, Ont. Native does the same with quiet intensity, subtle swing, nuance, natural musicality, reliable intonation and singular purity of voice. (Regarding the last point, Jo Stafford comes to mind.)
Legendary singer Sheila Jordan said of Panton’s art: “Diana makes every song so real and her voice is like the sweetest bird you’ve ever heard.” To these qualities, add impeccable phrasing and diction – every word clearly audible in English and French – along with superior taste in song selection and presentation, and you have an ideal candidate to carry on the great but sweet tradition. from the Great American Songbook and beyond.
And would I dare to draw a parallel with Francis Albert himself? While Diana’s young wide-eyed grappling with the whims of love may seem distant from the President’s almost suicidal displays of loss and longing, close inspection reveals some similarities. Take her first album Maybe yesterday (2005). She tackles several flamboyant ballads associated with the famous singer, ending with In the Wee Small Hours, a song that Sinatra practically owns. Likewise, its cycle of moon and star airs, If the moon turns green (2006), contains three numbers that Frank sang on his classic Sinatra in the moonlight 40 years earlier. These include Oh, You Crazy Moon, another definitive performance from Sinatra. Remarkably, she pulls off the feat, investing those familiar standards with enough passion to reveal their emotional core while reminding older, compelling listeners of their timeless appeal.
‘When I sing, I try to put myself at the service of the song’
Reflecting on this perhaps far-fetched pairing, I emailed her and asked her questions. She replied, “My dad is a huge Sinatra fan. He holds the 10 inch record for In the Wee Small Hours. I sang it for the first time in a workshop at the Banff Center for the Arts. When the time came 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 point of view.
And just as Ol ‘Blue Eyes had a great collaborator in Nelson Riddle, Diana has ideal partners for her style in the duet of versatile guitarist Reg Schwager and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Don Thompson (bass, piano, vibes). These distinguished players have appeared on every one of his recordings to date. Said Diana: “It’s a huge blessing to work with Reg and Don. We love the same songs a lot and there is an unspoken understanding between us on how the music should sound. Since the first recording everything has gone well.
The key to the success of such an aftermarket accompaniment is Thompson’s responsive arrangement and the effective use of overdubbing. Accompanied alternately by the two musicians, by one or the other, or by Don dubbed on two – or even three – instruments, the charts ensure the variety of Diana’s recorded heritage. Sometimes the voicings are reminiscent of the classic sound of the Shearing quintet, which is 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 on Diana’s disarming and diaphanous voice.
Don Thompson has been essential to Panton’s career from the start. Inspired to sing by an Ella Fitzgerald record she discovered in her father’s record collection, the 19-year-old was heard by Thompson playing with a youth orchestra in Hamilton. Impressed, he recommended that she enroll in the jazz workshop at the Banff Center for the Arts. In Banff, Diana honed her skills with established singers Norma Winstone, Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. Jordan in particular has helped guide his rapid development.
After Banff, musical activities temporarily gave way to studies of French language and literature and to teaching assignments to students in Paris and Canada. Eventually, Panton launched her full-time teaching career in her hometown, a position she still holds today. She started playing and recording in parallel, planning studio work on weekends or during school holidays.
Despite the constraints, Diana’s recordings are carefully crafted, with a pleasing look and sound. They are largely self-produced, with the singer playing a major role at every stage of a given project. Starting from around 100 song titles, she shrunk the list in a long process of elimination. She explains, “The final 20 cut to the final track list is always the hardest part for me because I’ve generally bonded very strongly to those tracks at this point. Don decides on the best keys, we discuss the instrumentation and he prepares his magical arrangements. We are recording. She makes the final selection of uses and is also involved in the editing, mixing and mastering phases. She also takes care of the design and layout, in close collaboration with the graphic designer.
Most of his albums are built around themes. In addition to those already mentioned, she recorded a collection of bossa-nova (In Brazil with love), a sublime seasonal tribute Christmas kiss, and Solstice / equinox (2017), based on the theme of the changing seasons. Further proof of his artistic talent, his thematic decisions are in part guided by the natural process of maturation. Consider his explanation for the two albums titled pink and RED (the latter winner of the 2015 Juno Prize): “As for pinkI was drawn to a lot of flirty love songs and worried that as I got older they wouldn’t suit my voice, so I chose to put them together on one album. When i decided to 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 chose to record two albums in between.
Like her soulful older sister in the song, Rebecca Kilgore, Diana is a musical sleuth. Like Rebecca, she does extensive research and tries to find original scores. It also has an exceptional taste. One of his discoveries is a forgotten Harry Warren gem called A Little Boy, A Little Girl, A Little Moon, included on his album of lunar songs. Diana says: “It was written in 1927 and I don’t think it was ever recorded, so it was good to bring this song to life. (* See note below.) With lyrics by Robert King, the song tells the familiar story of love and marriage in a clever way with basic pictures of one or two words. It elicits a smile every time I hear it.
Diana changed course 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 resulted in follow-up, A cheerful little ear (2019). On the motivation of these sets: “I received several emails from parents telling me how they used certain songs from my albums to help put their children to bed. Since these particular songs seemed to appeal to both children and their parents, it sowed the seed to create a full album of songs that would suit lyrically for a younger audience.
What about the qualities that Diana finds attractive in a song? “When I started singing, it was the melody that attracted me to a song. However, as I moved towards themed albums, the emphasis shifted to the lyrics. That said, I still love a great melody and coupled with some great lyrics you have a winning combination. . . When I sing, I try to put myself at the service of the song. I’m trying to understand what the songwriter / lyricist was trying to convey and how I can tell this story through my own experiences.
A new recording is scheduled for 2022. As with the others, Reg and Don will be there, and maybe one or two guest musicians. Whatever the theme, Diana fans know how to expect a finely crafted affair that honors tradition with freshness and quiet passion. And while she may put herself at the service of the songs, rest assured that she will also present them as only Diana Panton does, telling stories that only she can tell.
* Two additional recordings are by Hal Kemp and the Delphians by Billy Bartholomew, with a voice by that class crooner, Al Bowlly, recorded in Berlin in 1928. The composition date of 1927 is not confirmed.