In the Media
  • Hamilton Magazine : High Notes
    Special to HM

    Among the jazz greats who’ve played the festival are Dave Brubeck, Elvin Jones, Fats Waller, George Benson, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Shirley Horn and Sonny Rollins. John Coltrane’s appearance at Juan-Les-Pins essentially launched his solo career. The musical mythology is daunting. And as backdrops go, it’s a bit on the dramatic end of things – the stage is set against the Côte d’Azur. If any of this fazes Panton particularly, she’s not letting on. “It came as a lovely surprise to be even invited to apply,” she says. “And to get the opportunity to go is wonderful.” It’s doubly meaningful, the singer says, because she knows how impressive the festival is. Panton has been to Juan-Les-Pins once before, during her decade as a vocalist with the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band. She’s still not entirely sure how she landed an invite to the festival, of course, but admits that it’s quite an honour – she’s one of only four vocalists performing as part of Jazz à Juan Révélations, a showcase that has traditionally heralded the brightest new voices in the world of jazz. This year’s edition spotlights Panton alongside three other female vocalists: French singers Nathalie Soles and Virginie Teychene, and French-born American Stéphy Haik. Panton, who was recently nominated as Best Jazz Vocalist at the 2008 National Jazz Awards, will be joined by guitarist and long-time collaborator Reg Schwager for the trip.

    The Hamilton-born singer got her first taste of singing when her younger sister dared her to audition for a local musical production of The Sound of Music. She took the dare and ended up snaring the lead role. Response to that performance led Panton to seek out a vocal instructor and hone her technique. When she discovered that her heart was in jazz, she gravitated back to performance and tried out for the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band. It was there she came to the attention of celebrated multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson, who recommended she try out for the notable jazz workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts. She succeeded and went on to study under British jazz singer Norma Winstone and American vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton. During her time at Banff she was invited to perform alongside Thompson, and left enough of an impression on him that he offered to accompany her in-studio when she was ready to cut her debut album, an offer she’d eventually accept. (Thompson, like Schwager, is one of the vocalist’s musical constants.)

    During her time with the HASJB, Panton found herself at the mic in front of ever-larger crowds here and abroad, including noteworthy jazz festivals in Freiburg (Germany), Vienne (France) and Montreux (Switzerland). She returned to France at the end of her decade with the All-Star Band, teaching at the University of Paris after completing a Master’s degree in French literature. Eighteen months later, she was back playing Ontario stages, performing a number of sold-out concerts with pianist David Braid, an emerging jazz prodigy and fellow HASJB alum. Emboldened by the response and increasingly self-assured, she recorded her self-released debut, Yesterday Perhaps, soon after. Acclaim followed, along with radio play on CBC and Jazz FM. Acknowledged as one of Canada’s most promising young vocalists, Panton has won praise from jazz luminaries such as Peter Appleyard, Guido Basso, Mike Murley, Phil Nimmons and Kenny Wheeler. And her lunar-themed sophomore release, If the Moon Turns Green, has continued to romance listeners.

    The warmth, clarity and expressiveness of Panton’s voice, which has invited comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, is no small part of that. The singer invests emotionally in her material in a way that makes the songs seem more true, makes her interpretations really resonate with listeners. She’s also been careful not to overbook her calendar, and as a result performances are more that just tests of endurance or hurdles to be overcome. The purity of her approach to the material also seems to immunize her against the musical anonymity that’s epidemic among young female jazz singers in this day and age. Smooth jazz is popular enough, but in pursuit of ever-larger audiences, you can smooth away the character if you’re not careful. Noodling is different than being a noodle – nobody likes a musical invertebrate. Panton understands the perils of the mass market but insists that commercial constraints don’t factor into her decision-making as a musician.

    “I’ve always sung the material that I like to sing,” she explains. “And I’ll continue to do that. I’ve thought about the concessions in terms of the possibility of working with labels. I’m not saying I’ll never change, but if I change I’ll be because I feel like changing artistically, not because I feel any pressure or because someone asked me to.”

    Still, Panton is careful to pinch herself on a regular basis. “The opportunity to play with Don Thompson and Reg Schwager is phenomenal,” she says. “They’re two of the best players in Canada, bar none. And the fact that we’ve already got material for the next two albums set out and ready to go, and that they’re interested in being a part of that, is exceptional.” She’ll be recording material for her third album this summer.

    Although Panton’s ascent as a largely self-taught vocalist is a bit unusual in today’s world of professional musicians and systematized learning, she concedes that her method isn’t all that mad. It’s actually a throwback to earlier days, when musical skill was honed through apprenticeship, of listening and responding. Even so, another pinch. “To not have gone to any musical school or university and to be able to play with people of that caliber, I feel really lucky. All of it – the CD sales, the radio play, has been beyond my expectations. When I started making CD’s, I don’t think I realized how hard it is to sell them. Pressing Yesterday Perhaps, I figured if I made a thousand I could sell a thousand. It was only when it came to make my second pressing, and in talking with other people, that I became aware of how unusual that achievement was for an independently released jazz album.”

    Panton has her eyes trained on the horizon, and is trying to keep herself disciplined as a performer. Bur for now, her teaching makes her independent, hands-on musical career possible, and juggling coursework at Westdale – where she went herself, long ago – eats up much of her time. But time is also something that jazz artists have an abundance of. The genre accommodates longevity in a way that youth-centric pop music does not. Jazz artists are often more venerated as they grow older, and their artistic evolution can be a much more natural process. The singer herself is finding this to be true.

    “My ears are getting better. I hear things better. And I’m growing into my own voice,” she says. “And little by little, album by album, it is more there. It’s nice to have gone through the recording process, which allows me to focus more intently on the music. At this point, teaching is a time-consuming job, but my goal is just to make sure that I put out an album every two years, that I don’t get lazy about things.”