Barb Jungr - Live Review - The Telegraph

Barb Jungr, Pizza Express Jazz Club Review

There's an easy way to be a cabaret singer: plunder the great American song-book, render the songs in a breathy undertone that sounds generically sophisticated, and rely on the low lights and some louche piano licks to lend atmosphere.

Barb Jungr is just not interested in being generically anything. Communicating real, heart-felt emotion is what she's about, and for her the process begins with finding the songs that most people ignore. She's an indefatigible explorer of the by-ways of song, and she tells us about each one with the pleased air of someone who's hit on a hidden gem.

Who would have thought Hank Williams could fashion something archetypically moving, like a folk-song? Not me: I'd assumed he was someone only country lovers could find interesting. But there it was - 'Lost in the River', with a majestic simple melody and a gospel-like grandeur in the words.

That image of the river ran through the whole evening, in all sorts of guises. The Mersey was glimpsed in Ferry Across the Mersey. The Thames was pictured in Ewan MacColl's lovely Sweet Thames Flow Softly, with its roll-call of river scenes from Wapping to Richmond, and in Ray Davies's Waterloo Sunset. Both songs felt strangely ancient, as if they'd passed into the realm of folk music.

Jungr and her pianist, Simon Wallace, brought this off by not gilding the lily. They kept things simple, Wallace with a hymn-like fullness of piano sound, Jungr with a voice that's strong and focused and full of emotional heat even when it sinks right down to pianissimo.

This isn't to say she's unvaried. Percy Mayfield's The River's Invitation is a great blues classic, but how do you sing the line where the singer imagines the river is calling on him to drown himself? Jungr and Wallace managed to make it heartfelt and self-mocking at the same time, which is surely the only way to handle something so over the top.

Sometimes, though, there's no option but to go for broke, as in Old Man River. It takes courage to sing such a classic, and a big voice, too, and Jungr certainly has both. In the confined space of Pizza Express it was overwhelming, and maybe even a bit too much. The quiet way she caught the patient, lamenting heart of Sam Cooke's A Change is Gonna Come worked better, and was the evening's most touching moment.

The Telegraph
01 February 2011