Barb Jungr is a London-based English singer, with Czech and German heritage. As a vocalist, she cut her teeth on the cabaret circuit, touring a series of themed shows such as ‘Heaven Bent, Hell Bound’ and ‘Girl Talk’, which also featured Claire Martin and Mari Wilson. In recent years, she has become known for her interpretations of Bob Dylan songs, releasing ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ (2002) and the highly acclaimed ‘Man In The Long Black Coat’ (2011). She has also recorded albums of songs associated with Elvis Presley and Nina Simone, which probably makes her more interpreter than jazz singer; although here at Kind of Jazz, with our love of ‘crossover’ music, labels mean very little.
‘Hard Rain’, her latest CD, is subtitled ‘The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’. It takes a brave singer to tackle songs as famous as ‘Hard Rain’ and ‘It’s Alright Ma’, but Jung tries to make them her own. ‘Masters Of War’ is stripped back and slowed down, invoking the image of a mother standing by a grave, contemplating the futility of war. ‘Chimes Of Freedom’, the final track on the CD, is another highlight, Jungr bringing a woman’s perspective to the hard-hitting lyrics.
The decision to focus on protest-type songs on this collection means that some of these songs have simply been heard too many times. To this end, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ suffers in comparison with the lesser-known ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’. I also felt there were times when the arrangements tried too hard to be dramatic, particularly in the use of the shakahachi – a Japanese flute – which felt somewhat contrived, and detracted from the elegance of the singing.
To my mind, the Leonard Cohen songs, whilst less familiar, are the more successful. ‘Everybody Knows’ benefits from losing the 1980s production of the original, and is given a simple jazz arrangement, allowing Jungr’s superb phrasing to shine. ‘First We Take Manhattan’ is better known, but again, she gives it new life, slowing the arrangement and allowing more space for the lyrics to breathe. These covers hold their own against the wonderful ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ by Cohen alumni Jennifer Warnes, which is high praise indeed.
Jungr herself claims that the space in between has always been her default position – between song and singer, lyric and music, and where the arrangements give her that space is when ‘Hard Rain’ comes into its own.