Thursday, 17 January 2013

Barb Jungr, Crazy Coqs, Brasserie Zedel

The marvellous new space in the Brasserie Zedel, The Crazy Coqs, is designed with the 1930s heyday of club performance in mind. The intention is that it should host the variety that one associates with the more all-embracing nature of Cabaret. Yet Barb Jungr's Cabaret evening had no props or stunts and, as she herself told us, not much talk either. This was an evening dedicated to the austere central axel of the Cabaret show, song.

The Crazy Coqs stage is not dissimilar to the crescent dais of Wigmore Hall's performance space and for all the informality of Barb Jungr's approach (gracious, effusive but still dry with North-Western wit) and the fuscia-shaded lamps on the tables at which we drank, this was a recital. The comparison with the Wigmore is conscious. Though the emphasis on acoustic connection is simply not a priority to the Cabaret artist, who typically uses amplification, the concentrated focus on the content of a song and the ever-mobile relationship between words, melody and the intention of the composer in putting them together is what brackets the popular singer and the recitalist together (indeed, one might just read the end of Edward Seckerson's brief note on the death of Richard Rodney Bennett to get a succinct idea of what the best musicians think of the implied segregation of popular and 'art'-song).

The theme of Barb Jungr's set (just over an hour without a break) was 'To The River' and took in a number of celebrated songs with that went up to and sometimes past the water's edge. I first began to realise I was watching the real thing at the slow-but-sustained rendition of Waterloo Sunset. This was the first song of the evening to achieve that tricky alchemy whereby the song is stripped of its famous performance history (a hit for The Kinks) to live afresh under its own terms.

This occupation of a song was a subject of some discussion afterwards. This is the second area where pre-war classical recital repertory differs from Cabaret, where song is brought alive from a page but popular song increasingly has to disentangle itself from the vocal and charismatic stamp of its celebrated performer (yes, usually just one).

Reclaiming a song from its pungent recorded history is more than a question of changing its arrangement, manipulating its melody and introducing an alternative voice. These are cosmetic adjustments to the song. Such re-appropriation of the song as a vehicle for the performer is easily overdone; it is the part of Cabaret to which I am allergic, when it brews self-indulgence and nondescript emoting.

This is not the way of Barb Jungr. She sings inside the song, not out in front of it. Joni Mitchell's River seemed to be a simple-pleasure number about a stretch of water for Jungr, dramatically curdled at the end with the realisation it was a fantasy to get to a lost lover. At the centre of her performance were a pair of songs, Old Man River, 'one of the greatest songs of the Old American Songbook' followed by Bruce Springsteen's The River, which she describes as 'perhaps one of the greatest of the New American Songbook'. Calmer than The Boss' striding approach Jungr's is narrated with all the pathos of barely realised youthful liberty fresh in the foreground.

Jungr's gift is in building and maintaining the temperature and trajectory of the song. She also has what I take to be a thoughtful microphone technique, meaning, as I understand it, changing the proximity of the mic to not only control dynamics but also the curious chemistry between the amplified voice and the acoustic voice in a room modest enough for that to have its own colour and coercion. Naturally all this combines in some drama on stage which was well-managed with the house sound and lighting engineer. Jungr was performing with the pianist Simon Wallace who moved between some carefully wrought arrangements to looser improvised backings. His style is decorous rather than tending towards the more baroque stylings of jazz, though a harmonically kaleidescopic break in an extended middle eight showed that he was probably holding himself back.

We did get a number with harmonica but we didn't get any Bob Dylan. I'm more than tempted to return to hear what this unique performer does with those songs.

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