Barb Jungr - Man in the Long Black Coat - The Art of the Torch Singer
03 October 2011The Art of the Torch Singer
There are three elders at the top of the tree when it comes to
British female singers who have an instinctive ability to tell the whole
story in a song: Norma Waterson, June Tabor and Barb Jungr.
Forget any ungallant connotations. I use the word simply to connote
wisdom and an almost forensic approach to their craft. If Waterson is
the benevolent earth mother, Tabor is the cool, all-seeing and often
bleak eye at the centre of life's storm. Jungr, on the other hand, hurls
herself into the maelstrom, seeking the key to the most visceral
experiences in the songs and chansons of the great modern songwriters
and rendering them into compelling dramas for the listener.
This summer saw the simultaneous release of two albums from Jungr. Strictly speaking, neither is actually ‘new'. Man in the Long Black Coat is a compilation of Bob Dylan recordings made since her groundbreaking 2002 set, Every Grain of Sand, with the bonus of four additional songs laid down in the studio at the start of this year. Durga Rising
is the reissue of her 1997 collaboration with renowned Asian music
producer Kuljit Bhamra and Jungr's late, and much-missed, accompanist
Russell Churney. Between them, these very different pieces of work
showcase an unstinting commitment to innovation and exploration that
runs like seams of resilient, glistening black jet through her finest
interpretations. Why this important British singer is still waiting to
make an appearance on Later... with Jools Holland is a mystery.
Some people have hailed Man in the Long Black Coat as
Jungr's best album yet. And there is certainly a holistic feel to the
album; much of this possibly comes from the sense of a ‘journey', in
which Jungr is getting closer and closer to crystallising exactly what
Dylan's lyrics mean to her. In doing so, she becomes increasingly agile
with the possibilities and nuances that they offer.
The four most recent tracks - the title track with its ominous,
funereal bell, "It Ain't Me Babe", the bitter, ironic "With God on Our
Side", and the sublime "Sara" - were all arranged and recorded with
pianist Jenny Carr. They reveal a singer at her peak, brimming with
confidence in the material. Dylan purists will no doubt perceive
liberties being taken. Let them get on with it. There's an audacity and
boldness about these reinvented classics that is rooted in Jungr's sense
of freedom in the world she discovers through them.
From the up tempo "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to the reggae beat
of "Just Like a Woman", a spacey treatment of "Like a Rolling Stone" and
the bluesy "High Water", Jungr pursues the truth in the lyrics with a
spirit of adventure and a musicality that is always intriguing. Who else
could dream of giving "Blind Willie McTell" the feel of a chanson and
make it work with such flair?
"Willie McTell" also turns up in a different, more subdued version on Durga Rising.
This album, sub-titled ‘An Indo-Jazz Adventure' is a cornucopia of
human experience; bhangra beats meet midnight soul. Jungr and Bhamra
have taken it on the road recently, now with exemplary pianist Simon
Wallace, to great acclaim.
Jungr's natural territory is pain and darkness, but she can also spin
tails of dizzying happiness. Both extremes are here in a collection of
almost entirely self-penned lyrics (Dylan aside), and the music of
Bhamra, Churney and her old partner-in-song Michael Parker.
Bhamra's percussion is ethereal and fleet-fingered, working with
Jungr's vocals in contrapuntal sequences that shimmer with energy. When
things get dark, they get really dark. "How Could I Ever", "Tears in a
Bottle" and the lascerating, end-of-the-affair piece of advice, "Choose
to be Alone", offer delicious degrees of cynicism. So do the apocalyptic
overtones of "Crimes Against Nature". But there are plenty of lighter
textures in the music, and the exhilarating, life affirming romance of
"Bombay Dreaming" - a latin-ish, retro dance hall number - is balm for
the most jaded spirit.
Related LinksBarb JungrMan In The Long Black Coat