In just about every field, there are practitioners and then there are artists. In the still-cogent cabaret area, this distinction is usually between singers and those who take singing to a higher plane.
The number of genuinely valuable inductees in the former category is gratifyingly large--the performers blessed with interesting voices, excellent taste in songs and appealing personalities. The artist population is smaller, and at the moment one of the best, if not the best, is Barb Jungr, who completes a six-night stay in the soigné Café Carlyle at the end of this week (Thursday-Saturday at 10:45).
Jungr--based in London but born and raised in northern England as the daughter of parents with a middle-European heritage--has the requirements to fit effortlessly into the strong-singers group. Her mezzo is robust when she wants, supple when she decides it's time to modulate the volume and unendingly moving. She has an unerring eye and, more pointedly, ear for good material and her true smile alone makes her irresistible--if that's what she wants to beat any given moment.
What she has that transcends the sincerely worthwhile is an ability to combine intellectual depth with authentic emotionalism. Jungr doesn't simply sing a series of carefully selected songs built around a theme. She goes to a songwriter (or singer-songwriter like Bob Dylan or Jacques Brel) or a singer (Elvis Presley or Nina Simone), or she chooses a subject (as she does with rivers for her current show) and makes a thorough study of whatever about the choice has caught her fancy.
The result of the probe isn't merely that she, say, subsequently recites biographical detail on the person whose career she's looked into. She goes much farther by examining the canon for what it means to her and how she can reinterpret it so that she all but redefines the collection. For example, in her last (and debut) Carlyle show, called "The Men I Love," during which she scrutinized American male songwriters of recent decades, she took Neil Diamond's "I'm a Believer"--often considered nothing more than a bubble-gum chart-topper--and turned it into a slow and affecting ballad about being completely surprised by love.
Because Jungr is an actress as much as a singer--many of the best cabaret singers are accomplished actresses (Barbara Cook, Andrea Marcovicci, Betty Buckley, Karen Mason)--she gives considered thought to every word in a song. The cumulative effect is that the topic for the evening is immeasurably illuminated.
A highlight of her current show--which is actually an almost uninterrupted string of highlights--is the treatment she gives to Judy Collins's "My Father." When settling on whether she'd use it, she listened to a live Nina Simone recording and tried to figure out why Simone had changed a few lyrics. Concluding that Simone had forgotten the words for a split-second and substituted her own, Jungr reckoned nevertheless that she'd sing the Simone version, which she prefers.
Another distinguishing Jungr factor is the natural--extending into brilliant--humor, she displays during introductions. (That she can be hilarious within a song where it's appropriate almost goes without saying.) Approaching the cabaret stage and just as often jazz and concert stages in this manner, she could be taking commercial risks by, for instance, focusing on less familiar songs. (From the Café Carlyle podium, she says she hopes she hasn't been obvious about the river songs featured--when many singers would have said they hoped they'd delivered expected repertoire.)
As a result, in her direct, personal intros, Jungr has a way of bringing audiences to a song. By the time she's finished explaining why she's included it--often after a knee-slapping digression or two--the crowd is primed to love the songs she admits might be obscure. This is definitely what happens when she chants Ewan MacColl's "Sweet Thames Flow Gently," a stunning contemporary update of Edmund Spenser and John Milton.
(Jungr doesn't mention Spenser or Milton. What she does with her humor is to position as a silly anti-intellectual notion any possible charge that artistry implies elitism.)
Though some of Jungr's inclusions are little-known, she hardly limits herself to the outré. She launches without introduction into the Oscar Hammerstein II-Jerome Kern "Old Man River" and sings it with angry fervor--whereupon she segues to Bruce Springsteen's quieter, even more disillusioned "The River." And notice that both songs are usually identified with men, a detail that's never a concern for Jungr.
It should be noted that accompanying her, she has Simon Wallace, who has artistry lineaments as well. His arrangements here are rich and deep. (Wallace and Jungr also collaborated on the subtly lush arrangements in her just-released "The Men I Love" CD release.)
Is this a perfect set? It would be with some minor microphone-level adjustments. When that's taken care of? Yes, perfect.