Singers know a lot about breathing and breath control. For Alex Pangman, those things have been a lifetime preoccupation - and not just when she's in a club or recording studio.
Pangman has just released 33, a good new album of sophisticated, mostly little-known songs from 1933 (on Montreal's Justin Time Records). It's a fairly happy collection, and you start to understand why when you learn that the 34-year-old singer recorded the whole thing (last year when she was 33) on a pair of transplanted lungs.
She has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that clogs the lungs and digestive system with a thick mucus. She had recorded four CDs (and one 78) and was down to about 25 per cent lung function when a set of donated organs became available in 2008.
"I couldn't even stand up in high heels, I had to sit down to sing," she says, recalling her last gig before the hospital called. "Walking upstairs was like climbing a mountain." She needed an oxygen tank for that hike, or to take a shower, or to ride her horse. She rode right up to the day before the operation, with a tank strapped to the saddle.
Her last request to the surgical team before the transplant began was that they go easy with the intubation tubes they were about to push down her throat. Those can be rough on the vocal cords, she says, though she escaped without noticeable damage after having the tubes in for 36 hours - "a very short time," she says, knowing how much worse it could have been.
A good singer's always a good storyteller, and from her perch in a vintage café on Toronto's west side, Pangman tells her medical saga with the same kind of thoughtful energy that goes into her comments about the music she loves. The surgery is old news for her, but its results are still a miracle that renews itself each time she takes a breath or sings with a kind of nuance she couldn't manage before.
"I can actually sing what I feel, instead of just what my lungs would let me do," she says, with wonder. "I can sing longer phrases, I can make all the expressions I want - breathy sounds, quiet sounds. If I tried to do a breathy sound before, I might start coughing."
Before the surgery, she became expert at doing much with little. She recorded a Christmas album with only 35 per cent lung function. She's good with those percentages, because even now she undergoes weekly lung tests.
She's very conscious of the fact that if she had actually lived during her favourite decade in music - the 1930s - she would never have gotten this far. Even 50 years ago, people with CF usually died before reaching kindergarten age; now, only half make it past 40.
Her new lungs won't clog up like the old ones, because they don't carry the gene that causes CF. The catch is that for the rest of her life, she'll have to take powerful immunosuppressive drugs that prevent her body from rejecting the foreign organs, but that also dampen her resistance to illness.
There are amateur singers in her family, and equestrians too, and her parents bought her a pony early on to keep her active and help clear her lungs. She was singing a country song at a karaoke barn dance near the stables (north of Mississauga, where she grew up) when another rider suggested he sing with his band at a schnitzel house.
"I fell in with a great group of guys who mentored me," she says, one of those guys being the late Jeff Healey, who produced her first album, They Say…(Another mentor, Colonel Tom Parker of the retro-bluegrass band the Backstabbers, married her in 2006). They introduced her to big-band singers such as Helen Forrest and Mildred Bailey, and to the joys of listening to old 78s.
"I felt like I had just discovered a great dinosaur bone," she says. "It was like a beautiful time capsule, that's also very real and present, and speaking of the human condition."
Unlike many jazz singers, she feels no urge to update old songs like Honeysuckle Rose, the only standard on her 33 album. The original presentation of the songs is not just a starting point, but an ideal.
"I'm attracted to the melodies and lyrics from that era, and to the sensibility and the feel of the musicians, just the way they played," she says. "Something about it recommends itself to me in a way I can't really put into words."
No matter; 33 makes her case with finesse and eloquence. Her one original tune, a ballad called As Lovely Lovers Do, shows how deeply she has absorbed the sensibility of her chosen era. Her singing, too, reflects the style of that period: her tone is light and buoyant, her line is studded with little turns, and she often glides up to the peak of a phrase from somewhere below the "correct" pitch.
She'll go on the road this summer, touring from Victoria to St. John's. She won't push it hard - she's happy to be able to take a breather every few days. Make that every day.