In an era during which rap and electronic music rose to commercial ascendancy, cabaret music could have easily become, to say the least, a quaint, passé art form. But during the last quarter of the 20th century, an alternative cabaret circuit developed and actually began to thrive throughout pockets of Europe. One of its catalysts and mainstays was Barb Jungr. Among Great Britain's best-kept secrets, she helped spread the word as a writer, advocate, and educator, but more importantly as one of the genre's most bracing and distinctive practitioners; a "chansonnier" who extended the French and German art song tradition into a new millennium by mixing it with jazz, blues, folk, world, and pop music.
Barb Jungr arrived in London in the mid-'70s from the northwest of England and quickly became involved in its music, theater, and film worlds. Soon thereafter, CBS Records released her fist single, "He's Gone," and NME selected it as one of its "Singles of the Week." With Jerry Kreeger and blues guitarist Michael Parker, she formed in the waning years of the decade the Three Courgettes, which got involved at the very beginning of the city's alternative cabaret scene. The vocal trio was discovered by Island Records busking new wave versions of gospel songs in the Kings Road and Portobello Market. They released a pair of well-received singles on the label, ultimately leading to tours with such acts as Sade and Kid Creole & the Coconuts.
After the Courgettes came to an end, Jungr released a solo album on Magnet Records that would eventually become a collector's item, before reconvening with Parker in the early '80s as the duo Jungr & Parker. They would spend the next 13 years touring extensively and internationally, as well as frequently performing their quirky mix of folk, blues, and jazz on British television and radio, ultimately winning a prestigious Perrier Award for their trouble. They also released six records, including one on Billy Bragg's Utility label.
By the outset of the 1990s, however, it was the ambitious, thematically assembled live shows that had become Jungr's primary artistic outlet. She spent the first half of the decade developing and directing the acclaimed showcases, both for groups and as solo pieces. The shows were usually tied together conceptually and, drawing on her background, presented theatrically at such esteemed venues as the Purcell Room and Pizza on the Park. Chief among these were "Hell Bent Heaven Bound" (with Ian Shaw, Christine Collister, and Parker), another Perrier pick, and "Money the Final Frontier" (with Mari Wilson and jazz singer Claire Martin), which were eventually combined on the cassette Hell Bent Heaven Bound II by Jungr, Collister, Parker, and Helen Watson.
In the midst of her busy performing and touring schedule, Jungr also found time to pursue a plethora of extracurricular projects. With co-writer James Tomalin, she began composing the music for a variety of television programs and theater companies. She also became a director of workshops for vocalists, and arranged for and conducted various choral groups and choirs. In addition, Jungr began to research, teach, write, and speak about the voice and European cabaret. In 1996, she earned a master of music degree in ethnomusicology from Goldsmith's College, which led to the formation of the trio Durga Rising (originally called JBC) with tabla player Kuljit Bhamra and longtime piano accompanist Russell Churney. They recorded and released the one-off project Durga Rising that same year.
By the end of the decade, Jungr had begun to contribute songs to various cabaret compilations, often for Irregular Records, which also released the singer's Bare, a collection of intriguing covers (Jacques Brel, Ray Davies, Kris Kristofferson) and original compositions. It was not, however, until her next record, Chanson: The Space in Between, that the full range of her abilities were brought to record. Released on Linn Records, Chanson was full of beautifully expressive performances of songs by Brel, Jacques Prévert, Léo Ferré, and Cole Porter, often in fresh, specially commissioned translations and with unique arrangements. Britain's Sunday Times named it to its year-end jazz Top Ten list. Jungr followed up the album with the luminous Every Grain of Sand, a whole set from the pen of Bob Dylan, who she treated as a stylist on a par with the greats of American song. The album was launched live in England with a sold-out run at the Soho Theatre, and led to a traveling showcase that Jungr took to New York City in the autumn of 2002. In the meantime, she also continued work on a musical, The Ballad of Norah's Ark, set for release the following year, and recorded classical composer Jonathan Cooper's "Moon Cycle" (written especially for her voice) in anticipation of its premier in 2003. ~ Stanton Swihart