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"Hamilton jazz singer up for Juno 'a complete original'"

TORONTO -- Back in February, Hamilton high-school teacher Diana Panton was summoned from her classroom by her principal.

She had a phone call and it couldn't wait. Naturally, she assumed the worst.

"I said: `It's an emergency? I can't get it later?"' Panton recalls. "He said: `You'd better get it now."'

As it turns out, it was a reporter calling to tell Panton she'd been nominated for a Juno Award -- vocal jazz album of the year, for "If the Moon Turns Green."

Panton, who teaches French, art and drama, was shocked. She hadn't even realized that nominations were about to be released.

"Nothing got sent to me about the announcement of the nominations," she says, "so it kind of came out of the blue for me."

Since her debut "Yesterday Perhaps" was released in 2005, acclaim for Panton has been steadily growing, with local raves turning to national attention -- and now, the nomination for this Sunday's Juno Awards in Vancouver (CTV, check local listings).

The singer, who functions as her own manager, booking agent, publicist and record label, has maintained control over virtually every part of her career. Though she was caught off guard by the nomination, her peers weren't.

"She's a complete original. She doesn't do anything like anybody else," says veteran Canadian jazz musician Don Thompson, who has frequently collaborated with Panton.

Thompson first met Panton when she was 19 and finishing up her time as a student at Westdale Secondary School, where she now teaches. She was a member of the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band, and Thompson was impressed when he heard her sing at one of their concerts.

He sought her out backstage and told her to call him when she was ready to record a CD. She took him up on it -- 10 years later.

"At the time, I was like: `No way! I'm not ready to record,"' she says. "But I was really honoured that he asked. I definitely kept it in mind. When I phoned again, I wasn't sure if he'd even remember who I was."

But Thompson did remember. He says he rarely sees people as skilled as Panton.

"She's got a huge talent, there's no question about that," says Thompson, whose "For Kenny Wheeler" is up for a Juno for traditional jazz album of the year.

"It's a beautiful sound she has, and an unusual vibrato that she uses. But the most important thing, I think, is that direct honesty. Because when she sings, there's absolutely nothing that you could ever not believe."

Panton, for her part, cites a diverse array of influences from the jazz world, which she grew to love while listening to her dad's old records as a child.

She was already singing from a young age.

"I can recall at six years old I used to make up my own songs when I was walking home (from school) and be quite into them," she says. "So the singing was kind of always there."

But she didn't start performing in front of an audience until she was challenged by her mother.

"My sister started doing plays and at 13 I went to see one, and I guess I was overly critical of the production," Panton remembers. "And my mom said something to the effect of: `I suppose you think you could do a better job.'

"I was dared to try out, basically, and I said, 'OK, fine, I'll do it."'

Panton has been gradually adding more performances over the last few years, but says she's not necessarily able to perform even monthly because of her obligations as a teacher.

She says she enjoys teaching and the financial security that provides, and can't see herself leaving her day job behind.

"There's various options I'd consider there," she says. "I'd combine them slightly if the music was starting to take up more time."

As it is, Panton is occupied with work that few musicians handle themselves. She arranges for the distribution of her albums herself, she takes care of having her CDs printed and books all her own gigs.

She says she'd have a hard time giving up that control.

"I don't think I could relinquish that very easily," she says. "I enjoy that part. I enjoy coming up with all the ideas.

"I'm always way ahead of myself. I already have three or four albums ready in my mind. I know what they're going to look like."

- The Canadian Press Mar. 27 2009


At the early age of 19, Diana Panton was turning heads. Becoming a stand out with early appearances with the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band and concerts with pianist David Braid, it took nearly a decade but Panton realized her first CD in 2005 with …yesterday perhaps. Acclaimed by the national media as one of the year’s best jazz works, it’s now taken two years for Panton sophomore CD, but it was well worth the wait.

While her debut CD explored her penchant for French, that Panton also offers as a professor of the language, her new CD, if the moon turns green …, explores the more mystical qualities of the universe of song.

“When I started compiling songs, I began to notice a proliferation of songs related to the moon and stars and eventually these songs started to congregate together toward a concept album,” recalls Panton. “At the time, I didn’t realize that I was not the first jazz musician to explore this theme and as the project progressed, more and more albums started to surface around the same concept. This really shouldn’t be too surprising given the number of 50-odd songs that came to mind as I started compiling my own list, it truly is a theme that has inspired many composers, particularly back in the 1920s and ‘30s. I briefly thought of moving on to another idea, but the more albums I came across, the more I realized that some of the songs I had picked as my final cuts were quite different from those on other albums and I thought the album might be a complimentary addition to those that had preceded it.”

With a subtle, understated vocal style and a minimal yet intriguing musical backdrop (featuring Don Thompson on piano and bass and Reg Schwager on guitar), Panton breathes new life into these songs embracing the elegance of melody and still lifting some songs to a new level. Jazz fans should be delighted but music fans on a whole should take note of this up and coming singer.

“I always try to be as present to the lyrics as possible – to tell the story and be honest,” offers Panton on her musical interpretations. “In that way, it becomes more about the music and less about me. I enjoy and immensely respect the talent of a number of diverse jazz musicians from Lester Young to Sheila Jordan to Billy Eckstine. My three primary influences vocally are Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but as much as three ladies were my teachers in the past, little by little, I am growing into my own voice and my own sound. My goal is simply to select songs I like and perform them to the best of my ability and I am grateful to anyone who takes the time to listen and feel something.

“I think the new CD will an exciting one for jazz aficionados, as hopefully there will be some new discoveries for them, just as there were for myself as I sought out the tunes for this album,” adds the singer. “But I think the universal themes of love and hope associated with the moon and stars will also be accessible to a wider audience.”

July 5 – 11. 2007 VIEW - View Magazine Cover Story by RIC TAYLOR July 9-11 2005

"DIANA PANTON: Steeltown produces a smouldering hot jazz singing sensation"

DIANA PANTON at the Red Guitar (603 Markham), Thursday and Friday (February 2 and 3). $7. 416-913-4586. www.dianapanton.com
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."

- NOW Magazine Cover Story by TIM PERLICH FEBRUARY 2 - 8, 2006 | VOL. 25 NO. 23


pink (2009)
if the moon turns green ... (2007)
... yesterday perhaps (2005)
all three albums have received extensive radio play from a variety of stations including CBC, Radio-Canada, JAZZ.FM, Iceberg internet radio, Dobbin's Den and numerous university shows, as well as radio stations in the US



“…Canada’s next great jazz singer.” Tim Perlich, NOW magazine

“Aesthetically wonderful.” Dr. Yusef Lateef, Jazz in July

Diana Panton is being heralded as one of the most promising vocal stars on the Canadian jazz scene. Her keen aesthetic sense has attracted the attention of some of the jazz world’s most respected masters. Panton has performed with jazz luminaries including Peter Appleyard, Guido Basso, Phil Nimmons and Kenny Wheeler. Both her debut album and sophomore release feature a fruitful collaboration with two of Canada’s foremost jazz musicians, multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson and guitarist Reg Schwager.

Panton and Thompson performed together for the first time at the famed “Blue Room” during a jazz workshop at the Banff Center for the Arts. “She really knocked me out that night,” Thompson said. “She was so young, but she had a lot of depth and real feeling. It surprised me right away.” Following that performance, Thompson told Panton to contact him when she was ready to record – which resulted in their first outing (some 10 years later), “…yesterday perhaps” (2005).

As a result of that debut release, Panton appeared on the covers of NOW Magazine (Toronto) and VIEW (Hamilton). Her debut album, “…yesterday perhaps,” was selected for The TOP 10 discs of 2005 by Tim Perlich (NOW magazine) and Len Dobbin (Montreal Mirror). The album also won “Best Jazz Recording” and the publicly-voted “Best Live Performance” at the 2005 Hamilton Music Awards.

Her critically acclaimed sophomore release "if the moon turns green ..."(2007) was a TOP 10 Canadian Recording of the Year on a number of year-end lists. It earned her recognition as the "Best Female Vocalist" at the 2008 Hamilton Music Awards and a nomination in the same category at the National Jazz Awards along with “Best Jazz Album of the Year”. The album was also a first place jury selection which allowed Diana to perform at the prestigious Jazz à Juan Révélations 2008 (Juan-les-Pins, France) where she was voted "Premiere Dauphine" by the Juan public. “if the moon turns green …” was also nominated for “Best Jazz Vocal Album” at the 2009 Juno awards.

Her much awaited third release, titled “pink”, is a narrative concept album about first love. It features stellar accompaniment once again from Don Thompson on vibes, bass and piano, Reg Schwager on guitar, and new to the group, Canadian jazz legend, Guido Basso on trumpet, cornet and flugel horn. Of the album, legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan has said, “This is a wonderful recording by a beautiful singer. Her spirit just shines thru on every note she sings. […] She makes each song sound so real and her voice is like the sweetest bird you'll ever hear. Diana's a real exotic bird. Just lovely.”