In another triumph for Jazz at the Fleece last night, Barb Jungr took on the hottest evening of the year so far, and the throbbing beats of a corporate ball being held in the conference suite next door, and she beat them both into submission. Her key weapon was her sublime ability to conjure a succession of images from lyrics, letting them swirl and merge in the minimal space between the stage and an audience that was hooked, mesmerised, by every word. There can’t be a finer spinner of tales on the live music scene today.
Jungr has evolved a unique performance style that is at once uncompromising and vulnerable. In this intimate setting, she surrendered herself to tremendous risks, using her breadth and range in ways that only a singer who is utterly at ease with her craft could possibly do. And song after song, she pulled it off, through two sets based on her recent album, The Men I Love (conceived, originally, for a highly successful run at the legendary Carlyle Cafe in Manhattan), dusted here and there with a handful of surprises. Concluding the first set with a keening version of “Ferry Cross the Mersey” created an intriguing shift in mood after the gathering intensity of a sequence of songs descending step by step into the darker reaches of emotion.
At the start, Jungr promised us a journey from fun through pain and loss – recurring themes in her work – to redemption. It was a route peppered with anecdotes and observations: Paul Simon’s grim face amidst the vibrant enthusiasm of a World Cup concert; the hilarious excitement when Micky Dolenz was nearly spotted in a Fulham greengrocer’s; the opposite trajectories of hope and expectation as life goes on (David Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime”); a salutary encounter with Janet Street Porter during a Radio 4 panel discussion; an early acquaintance with Todd Rundgren’s ex-wife and her quest for a rock star replacement.
But everything came back to the songs. Jungr described how critics have been divided about her treatment of Springsteen’s “The River”, with the more proprietorial lamenting her audacity at tackling one of the Boss’s totem numbers. Her spare, searing exploration of his bittersweet take on a relationship that’s run into the ground had us enthralled and was ample riposte to the nay-sayers. Tears trickled unashamedly as during “Everything I Own”, each word a poignant nudge to a private memory, Jungr enveloped us in a collective recognition of grief and loss. “Red Red Wine” became a keening anthem to recovery – aided, perhaps, by a hint of belligerence. With wry references to the intruding bass thuds from next door, she set her chin high and simply outsung the competition. Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” became a torch-song: who else could achieve that with a Monkees number? The medley of “This Old Heart of Mine” and “Love Hurts” was almost unbearably moving. Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” revealed Jungr’s narrative brilliance at its best.
At the end, she thanked the audience for supporting live music. So a word of praise for the efforts of the team behind Jazz at the Fleece, which continues to be a beacon of live music in this corner of Suffolk. They manage to attract an extraordinary calibre of artist each Friday night, turning a bland hotel function room into a small arena of excellence, and each season features music for a huge variety of tastes. To see even a small number of empty seats is always a disappointment so if you find yourself out here for a weekend and love live music, do check out who’s playing or singing.