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Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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Singer Barb Jungr is on a roll at present. In March 2009 she and accompanist Simon Wallace played for the first time at Café Carlyle, in New York City, presenting a show entitled "The Men I Love" which featured songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Todd Rundgren and Neil Diamond. The show received rave reviews and was voted one of the year's best by Time Out New York. The songs from the show formed the basis for the album The Men I Love: The New American Songbook (Naim, 2010) released to great acclaim. By then, Jungr was opening a new show, "River," at Café Carlyle to further rave reviews. With concerts lined up throughout the year—invariably well attended and well received—plus other projects coming to fruition, the future looks bright for Jungr.

Anyone keen to check out Jungr's past would be well advised to spend some time on YouTube: it contains copious footage of Jungr from various phases of her career, including from her time working in the backing band on comedian Julian Clary's TV show, from her own solo career over the past decade, and even some post-punk footage from her younger days.

In mid-February, Jugr performed a Valentine's Day gig at The Vortex in London, where she was joined by long-time associate accompanist Jenny Carr. The program of songs was perfectly suited to the occasion, including love songs from throughout her catalogue. In between the songs, the set was peppered with anecdotes and wryly amusing observations on life. Throughout, in typical fashion, Jungr confided in, wooed and charmed the audience.

Jungr has recently been interviewed by The Independent newspaper and on Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, indicating her rising popularity. Jungr is keen to talk—honest, outgoing, thought-provoking, intelligent and self effacing.

AAJ: The two shows I saw were very different. I saw "The Men I Love" gig with Simon [Wallace] on piano.

BJ: Both great piano players; different but great. They are my favourite piano players. Simon Wallace, as you know, I've been working on with this CD [The Men I Love] and the stuff for New York now. And Jenny has worked with me for years now, since 2001. Mind you, so did Simon; he worked on the Chanson album [ Chanson: The Space In Between (Linn Records, 2000)] and the Dylan album [Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (Linn 2003)]. I think they are both great. I'm often amazed that other people don't try and snatch them away from me because they're so good.

AAJ: Are you now at a place where you trust each other?

BJ: I trust them both implicitly, yes, because they know me well enough. I think you have to let people do their work. You have to let people do what they do but if there's something that I think is too busy or if I think the vibe is wrong, they know me well enough to know that we just have to find the right solution to whatever that is. And in the same way... like yesterday Simon said something to me about a lyric thing. He said, "You're not singing this bit." I was singing a bit of the lyric, and he said he thought it was a mistake to sing that. And I went, "Oh, but I like it." He went, "I know you do, but I think it's a mistake." And I went, "I'm going to have to think about that"—and I abandoned it. You've got to listen to people as well; it's not a one-way street.

AAJ: So he's not just involved in the creative process; he acts as audience as well, reacts as a punter?

BJ: This was about the song, about if you sing this bit of the song, people will think essentially that you've lost the plot. Because it was a backing vocal bit of the song, and I was singing it because I thought I could get away with it as conversation. He said, "But it doesn't sound like conversation. It just sounds as though you've got some headphones on and you're singing along." And I went, "Does it?" because it didn't sound like that in my head. He went, "That is what people will think." So I went, "OK. Fair enough. It's a fair cop, guv." [Laughs].

AAJ: It was interesting the other night [at the Vortex Valentines Day gig], the relationship between you and Jenny. There was friendly banter going on, like when she set off at too quick a tempo and you slowed her down. That was very nice to see as an audience member. It was nice to see that process at work.

BJ: I think so. Also, it is a real thing when somebody is playing the piano. It is an art, accompanying. It is kind of an underrated art, actually. So, you'll hear people say of Richard Rodney Bennett that he is the most brilliant accompanist—of which there is no doubt. But I never hear it said of people like Simon and Jenny. Because playing as a solo pianist in your jazz trio is not the same thing, and there are some great piano players who are not necessarily great accompanists. Accompanying is so much a process of sensitivity to the singer. That means, of course, that the pianist has to respect the singer because there are an awful lot of rubbish singers, as we know. They have to think that it is worth listening, and you have to be listening to them, because it's a ball game; at different points the ball might be held in either of your hands or anywhere in between you. I think that is dead exciting. I love working with just minimal musicians on stage. You see the passage of that ball much more clearly in the audience, and it gives the piano so much room. Sometimes people say to me, "Obviously when you're at the Albert Hall you'll put a band in." Nobody would think of saying that to Glenn Gould, would they? Nobody would dream of it. "Oh, shame you haven't got a double bass, Glenn. That would perk it up a bit." It is very interesting the way we have completely different standards in completely different areas of music.

It's the same with the word "covers" which really annoys me. Nobody ever says, when they are putting on a new Bizet, "Innit a shame with that new opera. Innit a shame you all didn't write your new one yourself." As though there is no value in great work. The whole point of this The Men I Love album, as you know, is that they are great songs. And fifty people could sing them completely differently. Had we been in a different time, in the period that Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington were in (where nobody was going round saying, "What a shame you don't write your own material" to Ella, were they? Nobody was doing that) they'd have been singing this. They would have been going, "What great songs."

AAJ: That is the whole point of the album, isn't it? To have "songbook" in the title usually meant we were talking about Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and so on—you can reel them off. All those Ella Fitzgerald songbook albums were "the canon," weren't they? That was trotted out time and again by different people in slightly different ways.

BJ: Yes, and I think this is a canon as well. I absolutely think it is, but amazingly, I don't think the American cognoscenti has totally woken up to that, really; I think they might be waking up to it but I don't think they've realized it totally. I'm not saying that people like Dylan and Cohen don't have their fans; I'm not saying that. But I am saying valuing the material in a different way, valuing the material as not necessarily sung by them. Which, of course, in the beginning with Dylan people did; "Blowin' In The Wind" and so forth by Peter, Paul and Mary. The hits were with other people—The Byrds with "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," et cetera. Then suddenly, it is untouchable. But they are songs; they exist. Which, to me, is wonderful.

AAJ: But, as you say, it is that "cover" word, isn't it? Just chuck it out; they are versions but not covers.

BJ: Yes. "Covers" to mean means karaoke. Actually—and I was thinking about this the other day—Brian Ferry has been doing great versions for a long time. Far be it from me to find praise for Brian Ferry—although I was a great Roxy Music fan—-but, my God, his solo albums, when he took other songs... and the same with David Bowie. It is not as though there isn't a precedent within popular music so I really don't quite understand it.

AAJ: Even in the past decade—it is back to the songbook again— Rod Stewart has trotted out all of the oldies rather than going for the New canon.

BJ: He has gone for the new canon now because he has done a Tamla-Motown. I was driving back from a gig in Portsmouth and there it was, a version of [sings] "You're sweet like a honey bee..." —one of those. And Jenny went, "Who is this?" and I said, "It's Rod Stewart." But he's done the same arrangement. What's the point of that? Why do that? I don't understand the point. Why would you do that? For what purpose? But I can see that you could take that song and do something different with it. And it's not as though Rod Stewart doesn't have the means to do that. And I do think he is a great singer. Great vocalist, perhaps that's a better word for what he does.

AAJ: Down the years he has done amazing things with Dylan songs as well; he has reconstructed Dylan quite a few times, hasn't he?

BJ: Yes. It is very odd, but yes anyway...

AAJ: Let's talk about the creative process that led to The Men I Love. The obvious way in is through your versions of the songs on The Men I Love. They are total reinventions in some cases, aren't they?

BJ: I hope so.

AAJ: Did that come out of you and Simon, or you and Jenny?

BJ: It was me and Simon on this but on albums I've done with Jenny, it has been me and Jenny. Jenny did the arrangement of "Walkin' In Memphis"; she just went away and did it, in the same way that Simon did "Baby Blue" for me. Over the years, I've probably taken much more of an active part in the process. And they are very glad to see the back of me, my piano players, once I've gone, I can tell you. Otherwise I've sat there going, "Not that chord" or "Oh no, I don't like that." But they do also know that we are going somewhere together and that that is valuable. And they are brilliant. Simon is absolutely... they both are; I'm not going to make any distinctions here.
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