Believing What She Sings

Whitehorse is in for a treat when vocalist extraordinaire Diana Panton visits this weekend.

The Hamilton, Ontario singer will be accompanied by her talented trio, billed as the Canadian Jazz Masters. It includes Don Thompson on bass, piano and vibraphone, Reg Schwager on guitar and Guido Basso on trumpet, cornet and flugelhorn.

They are indeed Canadian jazz masters, with many awards and accolades among them. They have shared the stage with a virtual Who’s Who of the contemporary jazz world.

PHOTO: Jose Crespo

Thompson is largely responsible for bringing Panton to the forefront of the Canadian jazz scene. After hearing her as a teenager, he encouraged her development and invited her to get in touch when she wanted to record a CD.

Some 10 years later, Panton felt she was ready. The result was her debut CD, Yesterday Perhaps (2005).

Themes run through Panton’s work, not unlike the concept albums released by Frank Sinatra in the 1950s.

If the Moon Turns Green (2007) contains songs about the moon and stars. Pink (2010) celebrates new love, and her current release, To Brazil with Love (2011), explores the sensual bossa nova and samba rhythms of Brazil.

These themes were not pre-determined, but emerged as the song selections evolved. All these collections have included Thompson’s deft guidance and inspired playing.

“I am so very blessed to be working with Don,” Panton enthuses in a recent interview.

Panton’s creative process is to bring as many as 120 songs to Thompson to work on. They eliminate songs until they are down to about 20.

Paring down to the final 14 or 15 tunes that will make the recording is difficult, as they feel a deep connection to all of them, Panton says.

As they rehearse, arrangements evolve organically.

“Don knows my range and chooses keys that are right.”

Panton says she is grateful to have such a supportive musical partner.

“There is there is never any conflict.”

Whatever ideas she brings to a project, Thompson helps her realize their potential.

In discussing her art, Panton draws an analogy to parenting. Her intention is to develop and nurture these tunes to the best of her ability.

“You wouldn’t sell your child out,” she states.

Judging by the stellar reviews she garners from the international music press, it’s working.

The melody is the first thing that attracts Panton to a new song, but she also considers the lyrics carefully.

She has been heralded for singing every word as if she really believes it, with a direct emotional connection to each tune.

Asked about the source of these tunes, Panton says she is drawn to the aesthetic of singers from the 1950s. Among her favourites are the holy trinity of female jazz stars, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday.

Addressing her choice to sing some of the Brazilian repertoire on To Brazil with Love in French, she says it’s a language she knows well. In fact, she teaches French at the same high school she attended in Hamilton, Ontario.

Panton does not speak Portuguese, the primary language of Brazil, and felt she could not bring the emotional weight that she strives for. She was able to find French lyrics for some of these songs and felt the sound and rhythm was similar to the original and would work beautifully.

She was focused on respecting to the culture of Brazilian music without being imitative of other recordings.

She and Thompson have collected material for a fifth CD, slated for next fall, and have begun to finalize tunes for a sixth recording as well.

Panton does not discuss which songs will be presented; she prefers her audience to make that discovery as they listen.

Thompson’s contribution cannot be overstated but that does not diminish the role of guitarist Schwager.

Panton says his guitar parts are complete by the first take, and perfect by the second.

Schwager has played on every project in her discography and was helpful with inviting the gifted Brazilian musicians, Maninho Costa and Silas Silva, who grace To Brazil with Love.

The lush songs that revolve around the “new love” theme of Panton’s Pink CD called for a horn player.

Independently, both Panton and Thompson chose the incredible artistry of Guido Basso. Not only is his sound exactly correct, but the emotional quality of his lines fully support Panton’s concept.

Though the group will play music from all of Panton’s CDs, the Whitehorse audience will have the pleasure of hearing the very band that created the magic of the Pink recording.

Panton and the Canadian Jazz Masters will perform at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, March 11, starting at 7:30 p.m.

More information and audio clips are available at

Steve Gedrose is a jazz aficionado and former owner of the sadly-missed Rose Music store in Whitehorse.

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