Ivan Hewett finds the brilliant jazz singer on world-beating form
Barb Jungr is the alchemist among jazz singers. She takes dubious songs, and turns them into gold. And she takes songs we already knew were gold, and makes them interestingly different.
That gift was on electrifying display on Wednesday night, at the launch of her new album Shelter from the Storm. Jungr’s previous nine albums, which include reinventions of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, have lofted her slowly but surely to the top rank of jazz singers. Her latest roams across the great American songbook, with songs by Bacharach and Bernstein and Rodger alongside Joni Mitchell and Bowie and Bob Dylan. With her was Grammy award-winning piano virtuoso and ingenious arranger Laurence Hobgood, bassist Davide Mantovani and percussionist Olli Savill.
Jungr swept on and launched off into a song about an imaginary foggy island, conjuring up its presence in the distance. Being a great walker and inveterate traveller, she likes songs that conjure great vistas, which she makes us see in our minds eye with big sweeping gestures. Then we were off into a song in beguine rhythm which seemed weirdly familiar. It took some time to realise it was Richard Rodgers’s kitschy fantasy Bali Hai, from South Pacific. Jungr delivered it with a saucy, tongue-in-cheek relish, which almost rescued it.
But maybe it wasn’t the best place to start, and Hobgood’s new song Stars Lazy but Shining, one of three on words by Jungr, was not the most inspired (the one we heard later, inspired by the death of Nina Simone, was much stronger). The evening really caught fire with Bob Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. It’s a difficult song to bring off with its endless procession of verses, each more grandiloquent than the last. Jungr and Hobgood did it partly by an unexpected gear-change to a driving rock rhythm. By the end, it had grown to something tremendous.
No doubt about it, Jungr can summon a fabulous bluesy energy, and that rooted, deep quality can be felt in her luscious pianissimo too. You wouldn’t think those qualities could be applied to the weirdness of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, but Jungr cleverly managed to meet the song half-way, thanks partly to Hobgood and Savill’s ingenious recolourings. To bring the same magic to Burt Bacharach’s What the World Needs Now shows just how intelligent a singer she is. She is truly a marvel, who should not be missed.
Barb Jungr’s album Shelter from the Storm is out now on Linn. Tour details: barbjungr.co.uk