Rhythms Magazine June 2013
How does one define the difference between covering and interpreting a song? Perhaps it has something to do with the genre, for those with a jazz leaning seem to invariably be the interpreters, those who hear something more in the music than mere mortals. Barb Jungr firmly sits in this category, having established herself over a lengthy career as one of the pre-eminent interpreters, in a jazz infused way, of popular music. The British born singer has forged an extraordinarily successful career out of remodelling major works by other artists. On her previous 13 albums she hasn’t been afraid to take on rock royalty; indeed her two complete albums of Dylan covers, I mean interpretations, 2002’s Every Grain Of Sand and 2011’s Man In The Long Black Coat, are considered to be near faultless examples of the chansonnier’s art.
And so to her 14th release, Stockport To Memphis, an album that serves to document her life journey from humble beginnings in Lancashire, coloured by torrid experiences in the Sudan and Cameroon, and finally to Memphis, a city that, to this day, she has ironically never visited but nonetheless has been the cornerstone of her musical appreciation (she’s not alone!). A major departure is the inclusion of five originals, and these songs turn out to be the highpoints of the set. In particular, the title track and the poignant ‘New Life’ both have a vibrancy that is curiously lacking elsewhere. It’s the eight “interpretations” that provide the biggest hurdle. There’s no questioning her chutzpah but, really, taking on Sam Cooke (‘Change Is Gonna Come’), Joni Mitchell (‘River’), Neil Young (‘Old Man’), Rod Argent’s ‘She’s Not There’, Mike Scott (‘Fisherman’s Blues’), Hank Williams (‘Lost In The River’), Waits (‘Way Down In The Hole’) and Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (even non-Dylan fans like me have an untouchable Bob song, and this is mine!) is simply eight bridges too far. It’s not that she can’t sing, but this stuff is taken from the high altar of rock and it just doesn’t work in a smoke-filled jazz environment.
There is no doubt that Barb Jungr fans who have previously drunk from her jazz inflected well will revel in this new release. But to cover (let’s call it what it is) such an iconic brace of songs that will forever be associated with the original artists’ own definitive versions just seems a bit of a waste. That her own compositions more than hold their own would suggest that she should perhaps channel her talents into this previously uncharted area, or perhaps have a word to Bettye Lavette when she next chooses her song list. Oh yeah, and a trip to Memphis should be at the top of her agenda.