Barb Jungr & John McDaniel "Come Together"
Internationally acclaimed British jazz/cabaret chanteuse Barb Jungr was back at the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) cconference again this year, showcasing both her new Come Together—Barb Jungr & John McDaniel Perform the Beatles CD and her new project Float Like a Butterly, for which she and jazz pianist Matt Baker likewise explore Sting's song catalog.
Oddly enough, though, it took this long for Jungr, who's been recording since the mid-1980s, to tackle the Beatles, having heavily "deconstructed" songs by major songwriters previously, most notably by Bob Dylan, whom she has devoted two full albums to and half of a third (2014's Hard Rain--The Songs of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen).
"I love singing Beatles songs now, but I grew up with them, so I think in a way I overlooked the magnificence of them," says Jungr. "Not that I didn't know they were brilliant, but from the point-of-view of deconstruction, I'd never tried them."
Then one day she was working in Connecticut with award-winning (a Tony for the revival of Annie Get Your Gun, a Grammy for its show album and an Emmy for The Rosie O'Donnell Show) composer-pianist-music director John McDaniel.
"He gave me an arrangement of 'In My Life,' and it was beautiful. So we said maybe we should do a Beatles album together, which I found attractive, as John is not British and doesn't come at the material with the same level of reverence that British people come to it, and in order to deconstruct you have to be respectful but irreverent."
Asked about her use of the word "deconstruct," she takes a cue from Dylan and David Bowie in finding it difficult to look back at her work.
"I deconstruct things—but what does that mean? You just look at the song, sing it and see if it works or it doesn't—and if it works you know it. You can't force it. But I don't understand the process!"
But for sure, Jungr, a songwriter in her own right, studies her covers in enormous depth, taking them apart and putting them back together in a manner that brings out the best of both writer and vocalist.
Speaking of Dylan, Jungr reports that her 2002 album Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan is being reissued.
"It's 15-years-old and the record company calls it a cult classic—whatever that means—so it's re-releasing it and I'll tour it with my pianist. But I haven't listened to it since I made it and can't remember some of it, so it's really interesting!"
As for the new Come Together, Jungr says that she loves singing the songs live, and tried to record them that way.
"The closest I ever came to doing that was in 1998 with Bare, which I made with [pianist] Russell Churney," she says. "We recorded piano and voice, straight to tape, and tried to do that with this, and I'm very pleased with what we achieved."
She notes that both she and McDaniel came up with short lists of songs "and nearly all of the songs we chose were on both lists—even coming from opposite sides of the Atlantic and with very different sensibilities! John's an extraordinary piano player, and the most terrific collaborator becuase of his sensitivity and care and aliveness."
As for Float Like a Butterfly—which takes its name, of course, from Muhammad Ali's famous "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" slogan—Jungr says it came out of a suggestion that she explore Sting as a contemporary songwriter, made at the Cabaret & Performance Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn., where McDaniel is artistic director and Jungr serves as one of the master instructors.
"Sting is quite wide-ranging, relentless in his own trajectory of learning and exploring ideas," says Jungr, citing "Englishman in New York" as "a really interesting idea that seems like two ideas, but opens up like TARDIS in Doctor Who: You think it's small and inside is a much bigger box with a lot more going on."
She met with Baker in November to hone a set of 50-minutes of material down to half an hour for APAP showcasing, "and I now know it was a great idea," she says. "For some reason, Sting seems to make people feel a bit dismissive of him, so it's kind of an interesting challenge there: Maybe we have to re-examine things we dismiss in order to find the quality inside them--which I think is very true of Dylan, actually."
Sometimes, she explains, "the groove behind [Dylan's] songs carries the lyric along in a way that stops you from maybe completely hearing how extraordinary the songs are and how extraordinary his lyrical and human understanding is."
Jungr picks up on Meryl Streep's much quoted closing line from her controversial speech at Sunday night's Golden Globe Awards.
"Take your broken heart, make it into art," she says, Streep's line actuall a quote from her late friend Carrie Fisher.
"It's what we're all trying to do," Jungr concludes. "But things have to present themselves, and you have to wait for that. These projects are such labors of love and require a lot of broken heart-fixing, and each time you do you have to dig for something in corners that sometimes I'm quite happy to leave untouched."